Nov. 1 vs. Philadelphia at Wells Fargo Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (5-7)
Philadelphia Flyers (3-8)
Washington finishes off a five-game road swing and also begins the November portion of its 2013-14 season on Friday night in Philadelphia. For the first time since 1997-98, the Caps will be facing the Flyers as divisional rivals. The two longtime geographic foes have finally been reunited in the Metropolitan Division.
The Capitals are 2-2 on the trip to date. They won the first two games in Winnipeg and Edmonton before falling in Calgary and Vancouver. They’ll head home to start a three-game homestand on Saturday against the Florida Panthers immediately after the Philly game.
When Washington takes to the ice against the Flyers in Philly on Friday, they’ll do so without the services of captain Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin suffered an upper body injury early in Monday’s loss to the Canucks in Vancouver.
After missing the Capitals’ Wednesday practice, Ovechkin was on the ice early Thursday morning, skating with injured Washington defenseman John Erskine and the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Mark Nemish. Ovechkin is listed as day-to-day, and he won’t travel with the team to Philadelphia.
Caps coach Adam Oates did say that Ovechkin may be able to return to action when his team return’s to the District on Saturday to host the Panthers.
With Ovechkin out, Oates will move two players back to their natural positions. Eric Fehr will move from center – where he has played since the start of preseason – back to his natural right wing spot. He’ll man the right side of the team’s top line – Ovechkin’s spot in five-on-five play – with Nicklas Backstrom in the middle and Martin Erat on the left.
Marcus Johansson, a center by trade, has been playing left wing for nearly two years straight now, and he had been on the left side of that top line with Backstrom and Ovechkin since March 17. Now Johansson will man the middle of a unit with Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer on the wings.
The red-hot third line of Jason Chimera and Joel Ward flanking Mikhail Grabovski will remain intact.
“Because we’ve lost two in a row,” explains Oates, “I was probably going to do something anyways. I think Chimmer and Wardo have been playing so well together, so I wanted to keep them together. Brooksie and Brouw have spent a lot of time together, so I wanted to do the same thing. So I figured I’d start Fehrsie and Marty with Backy and see where we go.”
Ovechkin has played in 82 consecutive regular season contests, dating back to Feb. 22, 2012. Now in his ninth NHL season, Ovechkin has missed just 21 games and only a dozen of those were because of injury. He missed two games for personal reasons and seven contests because of three separate NHL suspensions. Washington is 11-8-2 in the 21 games he has missed over the years. The Capitals have outscored the opposition 71-66 in the 21 games Ovechkin has missed for an average of 3.38 goals per game without him in the lineup.
The most consecutive games Ovechkin has ever missed is six, in November 2009 with a shoulder injury.
Fehr has been a goal-scorer at every level at which he has played, and he has a career high of 21 goals in the NHL, achieved with the Capitals in 2009-10. For virtually the entirety of his NHL career, Fehr has been slotted as a bottom six forward. When he tallied those 21 goals in 2009-10, he did so with easily the lowest average ice time (12:08 a night) of any of the league’s 110 goal scorers that season.
Ovechkin’s absence gives Fehr a rare opportunity in the top six, and as the big winger notes, he’ll have to adjust his game accordingly.
“You try not to do too much,” says Fehr, “and I’ve always said that playing on the top two lines is a different game than the bottom two lines. It’s not easy to be making that adjustment in and out [of the top six]. It’s a lot of playmaking and not as much dump and chase, and you’ve really got to look for your guys as opposed to just cycling the puck. That’s something I’m going to have to work on, and I’m switching from center to wing. I haven’t played wing this year yet; that’s just another thing to take into consideration. I’ve got to try to get a feel for that again and hopefully I can pick up where I left off in the preseason.”
Fehr scored five goals and eight points in five preseason games this fall, tying for the league lead in exhibition tallies. He started the season as the team’s third line pivot – his first taste of playing center in the NHL – but was bumped down to the middle of the fourth line over the last five games.
He knows he is unlikely to assume the full weight of Ovechkin’s 20-minute a night role, but Fehr also believes the Caps are deep enough up front to pull together in their captain’s absence.
“I think short term it’s going to give guys an opportunity to play a little bit more,” says Fehr. “We’ve got a lot of forwards that could eat up a lot of minutes and now they’re going to get an opportunity. Hopefully we can all fill in as a group and pitch in offensively. We haven’t been great five-on-five to begin with. We’re going to have to keep pushing harder and try to use all of our lines to our advantage here.”
The Flyers won’t be found sobbing in a corner over Ovechkin’s absence. He has 13 career goals and 19 points in 14 games at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, and he has 24 goals and 39 points in 29 career games against the Flyers.
Thus far this season, Ovechkin has 10 goals and 15 points in a dozen games while averaging 20:42 per night in ice time. Four of those goals have come on the power play where Ovechkin operates from his “office,” ripping one-timers from the left dot.
Ovechkin has been on the ice for 56:45 of the 60:24 in which Washington has enjoyed the man advantage this season. That’s 94 percent of the time. Because he almost always stays out for the full two minutes, few followers realize that Fehr is also the guy who occupies Ovi’s left dot spot on the second-team version of the Washington power play.
Fehr has been practicing at that spot for months, but because Ovechkin rarely leaves the ice before the end of a power play, he rarely gets a chance to occupy the office during games.
“I don’t think anybody knew that I was the backup there,” laughs Fehr. “It’s almost like being the backup to Tom Brady. You just don’t see the guy. Obviously it’s not good that he’s out and we hope he gets back soon. But we have skilled players on this team that can fill in at different positions. We’re a very well rounded team. We don’t like to rely on one guy and I think the guys will be just fine filling in everywhere.”
One of those other guys will be Johansson, who slides back to his natural position after a great deal of success on the left side of the top line. He has four goals and 29 points in his last 35 games, dating back to last season.
“I think he’s been playing good hockey,” says Oates of Johansson. “I wanted to put him between Brouw and Brooksie to see if we can generate something there for him and move Brooksie back to wing, which is really the thought that I’ve always liked. I know he is very versatile, but I like him on the wing a lot. I’d like to see where we go from there.”
Johansson was second on the team in face-offs (710) in 2010-11, a good indication of the amount of time he spent playing center that season. In the lockout-shortened (48 games) season of 2012-13, he took just 87 draws and he has had just four face-offs thus far this season.
“I don’t think I was in the middle last year,” says Johansson, when asked about his last stint as a pivot. “It was probably in the beginning of my second year. I think it’s been a while. Every now and then I have played a couple shifts at center, a game here or there. Sometimes you have to play the center role for a couple of shifts. If I’m playing with Nicky, sometimes you get to our own end before him and you have to play the center role. It’s not like it’s totally gone. It’s some reminders maybe of where to be and the timing a little bit, maybe. But I think it will be pretty quick to get it back.”
This will be Johansson’s first stint at playing center in Oates’ system, but he doesn’t believe that will pose much of a problem.
“I think it’s similar enough,” says Johansson. “It’s not going to change everything that much. You learn the systems now when you play and I think you know every role on the team because you have to know what the other guys are doing, too. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”
Philadelphia fired head coach Peter Laviolette earlier in the season, pulling the trigger quickly on him after an 0-3 start. Ex-Caps winger Craig Berube has taken over behind the Philly bench, and the Flyers are 3-5 under his tutelage.
The Flyers recently had a week off to get used to Berube’s way of life, and they’ve gone 2-1 since that hiatus. Most recently, Philly suffered a 3-2 home ice setback at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday. The Flyers will head out on the road for five of their next seven after Washington’s visit.
Philly reacquired irascible winger Steve Downie from Colorado on Thursday, sending veteran forward Maxime Talbot to the Avalanche as payment. Downie is expected to be in the lineup for the Flyers on Friday against the Capitals. He was originally drafted into the Flyers’ organization (first round, 29th overall in 2005).