Oct. 22 vs. Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (3-5)
Winnipeg Jets (4-5)
Washington embarks upon a season-high five-game road journey in which it will play five games in three time zones in a span of 11 days. The first stop on the Capitals’ tour is Winnipeg, where they’ll face they’ll take on an Southeast Division foe on Tuesday.
The Winnipeg Jets began life as the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-00. Tuesday’s game marks the 80th regular season meeting between these two former Southeast Division rivals, and it will be the first time the two clubs meet during the regular season in a non-divisional game. Washington and Winnipeg aren’t even in the same conference anymore; the Jets are in their third season in Manitoba and finally their first in the Western Conference’s Central Division.
Tuesday’s game is Washington’s fourth against the Jets in its last 28 regular season games, dating back to last season. After playing each other between five and eight times for each of the last 13 seasons, the Capitals and the Jets know each other quite well, but will now meet just twice a season going forward.
Tuesday’s game marks the Capitals’ first road foray in 17 days. The Caps dropped their first two road games of the season in Chicago (on Oct. 1) and in Dallas (Oct. 5) and are still seeking their first road triumph of 2013-14. Along with New Jersey (0-4-2) and Philadelphia (0-3), the Caps are one of just three NHL teams without a road victory to date. To be fair, only three other teams in the league – Chicago, St. Louis and Winnipeg – have played as few as two games on the road thus far.
The Caps head out onto the road on the heels of a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday. That victory left Washington with a 2-3 mark on its five-game homestand. The Caps scored twice at even strength and twice on the power play, and rode a 38-save performance from Braden Holtby to a convincing win over their new Metropolitan Division neighbors from Ohio.
“I think we gain a lot of confidence from a win like that,” said Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy after Saturday’s win, “not just because of the outcome but because of the way we played. It showed a lot of guys in this locker room that when we stick to the system and play within the system, good things will happen. I feel that’s huge.
“Obviously the homestand didn’t go exactly the way we wanted it to, but I feel we got better as it went on. It’s still early so I think that’s a huge win to cap it off and head out on the road. We’ve got a couple of tough teams ahead of us and hopefully we can build on this.”
Building on that Saturday performance means keeping the good elements from that game and cleaning up some other areas.
“I think we did a pretty good job of getting pucks in and pucks out,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “There were still a few here and there but I think we were a little more responsible with the puck. I think we were a bit meaner, a bit tougher to play against and thinking a little bit more about playing the body instead of being puck-focused. The goaltending was great. Just being pissed off is something we need to take with us whenever we play.”
With two of its top six defensemen out of the lineup, Washington is deploying six defensemen who have combined for a total of 1,005 career NHL regular season games among them. The greybeard of that group is 28-year-old Mike Green, with 441 career contests in the league.
Green was paired with 22-year-old rookie Nate Schmidt on Saturday. Schmidt has been in the NHL for just over a week now, and he has acquitted himself well. His ice time has gone up every game and he cracked the 20-minute barrier in the last two of his four career games in the circuit.
“I really like the way he moves the puck,” says Green of his new partner. “He makes great decisions and he has a great shot. I’ve been trying to work with him and help guide him as far as what the system is because I know it’s tough – especially when you are a younger guy – to play creatively within the structure because he really does have the talent to do so. I’m just trying to guide him along, but he’s been great. He’s just like a sponge; he wants as much information as he can get.”
Green and Alzner had been partners for most of last season. With Green being paired with Schmidt, Alzner was reunited with longtime partner John Carlson on Saturday, and he was quite clearly pleased with that development.
“It was good,” smiles Alzner. “We’re both kind of in the same position. We wanted to be playing a little bit better than we were. It was kind of the extra adrenaline we needed I think to get back together, knowing that we can help each other get our games exactly where we want them to be.
“There wasn’t any adjustment; we were just out there having fun. It was almost like a practice. We just made plays, skated up the ice, joined the rush every now and then, cross-checked a few guys. It was pretty much like playing shinny, that’s what it felt like, but it was in the NHL. So it was pretty cool.”
Washington is seeking to start its first winning streak of the season. Although the caps haven’t had the results they’d have liked in the first eight games, only two teams (Pittsburgh and Carolina) in the newly cobbled Metropolitan Division have more wins than the Capitals. They believe they’re a short winning streak away from being back on track.
“If you can go without losing more than two games in a row,” says Green, “you’re going to set yourself up nicely for the end of the season. And then you add in a couple of winning streaks of four, five, six or seven games and you’re good. If we can get on a bit of a streak here and get the points that we need to get to get caught up, we’ll be just fine.”
Washington will play every other day throughout its journey through the western portion of Canada. The Capitals won’t play their first set of back-to-back games until they come back east. Washington’s current five-game junket ends in Philadelphia on Nov. 1 and the Caps return home to face the Florida Panthers the next night.
Caps coach Adam Oates said goaltender Michal Neuvirth would get a start on the trip, but did not specify a date. Philadelphia makes sense, although it’s also possible that Washington would want Neuvirth to see game action before then.
Braden Holtby is in the midst of a strong run of netminding for Washington. Holtby has posted a 2.03 GAA and a .938 save pct. in his last five starts, going 2-3 in the process and facing 30 or more pucks in each of his last four outings.
Ensconced in their new Central Division home, the Jets were hoping to get off to a stronger start this season with less travel in the forecast and a more favorable home schedule early in the season. It’s early, but it hasn’t worked out that way so far.
Winnipeg played 11 of its first 15 games on the road when it moved to Manitoba for the 2011-12 season, and it held a 5-7-3 record at the end of that stretch. Last season, the Jets played 11 of their first 19 away from MTS Centre, compiling a 9-9-1 log during that span.
This season, the Jets play eight of their first 10 games on home ice, a stretch that concludes – along with a six-game homestand – with Washington’s Tuesday night visit. Winnipeg hasn’t been able to take advantage of that early season home ice largesse; the Jets are 3-4 on home ice to date and they currently sit in sixth place in the NHL’s seven-team Central Division.
Winnipeg won on opening night in Edmonton and then took its home opener against Los Angeles to forge a promising 2-0 start. But the Jets have won two of seven since, with six of those contests being played in Winnipeg.
Most recently, the Jets absorbed a 3-1 loss to the Predators on Sunday night.
After scoring at least one power-play goal in each of their first five games this season, the Jets are dry with the extra man in their last four games. Winnipeg is in the midst of an 0-for-12 drought on its power play.
The Jets’ penalty-killing outfit has succeeded on 15 of 16 missions (93.8%) over the last four games.
NOTES: The Caps have won three straight games at MTS Centre, outscoring the Jets by a combined 13-1 in the process … Caps defenseman John Erskine has missed each of the team’s last four games with an upper body injury. He is still listed as day-to-day, but Erskine made the trip out west with the team and could return to action as soon as Tuesday against the Jets. “He’s very close,” said Oates of Erskine, after Monday’s practice. “He said he felt good today. We’ll just make sure and see how he feels in the morning.” … Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba (upper body) and winger Chris Thorburn (mid body) are both on injured reserve and won’t play on Tuesday. Center Jim Slater (lower body) and defenseman Mark Stuart (lower body) both missed Sunday’s game against Nashville and are listed as day-to-day.