With October in the rear view mirror and 15 November games – including four sets of back-to-backs – lying ahead on the horizon, the Capitals are set to move into the season’s second month. While October featured nine games against Western Conference clubs, the Caps will play an Eastern-heavy November slate.
Eleven of the Caps’ 15 games in November will be played against Eastern Conference foes and five of those 11 will be against fellow Metropolitan Division denizens.
The Metropolitan has proven to be mediocre over the season’s first month. Seven of the eight occupants have fewer standings points than games played and even the last-place Philadelphia Flyers – Washington’s opponent tonight in the City of Brotherly Love – are a mere four points shy of second place. The Flyers could make up half that distance by beating the Caps tonight.
Pending the outcome of other contests around the circuit, Washington could leap all the way to second in the Metro with a win of its own over the Flyers tonight in the first divisional battle these two teams have had since April 11, 1998.
“There is nobody really pulling away in our division here,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “You’ve got to get those big divisional game wins and it starts here tonight in Philly. They’re a little behind us in the standings, and we want to put some separation [between us] and also climb the ladder ourselves. We’re not happy with where we are in the standings right now; we want to move up. And tonight’s a big step towards that.”
The Caps are finishing up a five-game road tour tonight in Philly, and a win would swing the journey in their favor. Washington is 2-2 on its journey to date. A trip that started with the promise of two wins that made for a modest three-game winning streak turned the other way last Saturday in Calgary with another sluggish first-period start. Now the Caps need a win here tonight to avoid a three-game skid in the immediate aftermath of the aforementioned three-game winning run.
A dozen games into the 2013-14 season, Caps coach Adam Oates has yet to see his team play the way it is capable of playing in the game’s first 20 minutes. Oates spent some time on Friday morning showing his team the video footage of Philadelphia’s last game, a 3-2 Flyers loss to Anaheim here on Tuesday night.
Philly has allowed only seven first-period goals this season, and only five teams in the league have been stingier defensively in the first period. In Tuesday’s game against the Ducks, the Flyers came out with guns blazing. They had 26 shot attempts to just 15 for Anaheim and rolled out to a quick 2-0 lead in the first frame.
The Flyers weren’t able to add to that advantage, and the Ducks tilted the ice significantly the rest of the way, mustering 49 shot tries to a mere 24 for the Flyers over the game’s final 40 minutes. But it wasn’t the game’s result that Oates was showing his team, it was that swift start. He wants his team to be ready for the Flyers to come out in that fashion, and he’d like – for the first time this season – to see his own troops come out with that level of a first-period fervor.
“We showed clips today of the other night where Anaheim looked like they weren’t ready early in the game,” says Oates. “And because of that, Philly jumped on them. It’s the same plays we talk about every night; you have to be ready. Every team comes with some form of energy. It’s in their building; you’ve got to expect them to be ready early and it didn’t look like Anaheim was.
“I showed the guys the plays, and they were plays that should have been executed. They got on their heels. They figured out a way over 60 minutes to get it back, but really you can’t spot teams a lead. You can’t. We have to be ready early, and it’s decisions with the puck. You’re there, you’ve got to make a good pass. You can’t make a bad pass. Make a bad pass, and we get hemmed in our own end and before you know it, mistakes happen.”
Washington has been terrific on both special teams this season and it heads into Friday night’s game with the league’s second-ranked penalty killing outfit and its fifth-best power play unit. That sort of special teams prowess should lead to a better record than Washington’s 5-7 ledger, but the Caps have been nicked for 3.17 goals per game (fourth-worst in the league) and have a five-on-five goals for/against ratio of 0.72, 23rd in the NHL.
“I feel like our five-on-five needs to improve a lot, and at both ends,” says Caps forward Eric Fehr. “We’re having trouble getting it out of our end and when we get it into the o-zone, we’re having trouble scoring. We’ve just got to work a little bit harder together as a five-man unit, come up the ice together and come back down the ice together and just communicate a little bit better. We’re just playing and we’ve got to start working together a little bit better.”
Washington is missing two of its top six defensemen on the left side. Jack Hillen will be out for several months and John Erskine is sidelined until at least Nov. 20. With those two out, the Caps currently have four other left-handed defensemen on the roster. Those four have a combined total of 368 games worth of NHL experience. Take away Karl Alzner – the greybeard of the group with 275 games – and the other three have combined for 93 contests in the league.
Experience or no experience, the Caps have to find a way to collaborate and get pucks out of their own end more cleanly and efficiently.
“Every team pressures in the offensive zone,” says Brouwer. “And every team wants to try to make turnovers from the d-men. And the d-men have got to be calm, make a good breakout pass and get the forwards going that way. For us, we’ve been working on being sharper in practice; passes on the tape, making sure that our breakouts are clean and we’re clean through the neutral zone and not turning pucks over.
“Anytime we don’t stall ourselves and slow ourselves down in our zone and the neutral zone, we’re going to have speed going into their zone and that helps us get a better forecheck and sustained pressure.”