Nov. 5 vs. New York Islanders at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
New York Islanders (6-5-3)
Washington Capitals (7-7)
Washington continues its three-game homestand and hopes to run its winning streak to three games when the New York Islanders make the first of their two visits to Verizon Center this season on Tuesday night. The game marks the first divisional matchup between the two teams since April 13, 1998 and their days as co-occupants of the Atlantic Division.
The Caps and Islanders shared Atlantic Division occupancy from 1993-94 to 1997-98. Prior to that, the two clubs were co-denizens of the Patrick Division from 1979-80 through 1992-93.
Reunited in the Metropolitan Division in the NHL’s 2013-14 gerrymandering, the Caps and Islanders are currently vying for the second spot in the division behind front-running Pittsburgh.
Both the Capitals and the Islanders have won each of their last two games, and the Islanders come into Tuesday’s contest one point ahead of Washington for second place in the Metropolitan.
Only three of the Capitals’ first 14 games this season came against clubs that made the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2012-13, and Washington lost all three of those contests (to Chicago, the New York Rangers and Vancouver). The Caps went 7-4 in the other 11 games, but needed the shootout in order to nail down three of those seven wins.
Clearly, the Capitals are capable of playing better hockey than they’ve played in the season’s first month. They know this, and they know that with a tougher and more rugged schedule ahead of them in November, and with a modest two-game winning run in their hip pocket, there is no time like the present to get started on that mission.
“I think we’ve got to play more consistent for 60 minutes,” says Caps forward Eric Fehr. “At times our d-zone has let us down and at times our offense has let us down. We’ve got to find a way to make those two mesh together. We’ve got to roll through all of our lines. We have some of the best offensive players in the league playing on all four of our lines. We’ve got to be able to use that to our advantage and wear teams down and just continually put lines on the ice that are working hard with a lot of skill and that can change the game.”
Washington swept a set of back-to-back games over the weekend, spanking the Flyers by a 7-0 count in Philadelphia on Friday and then eking out a 3-2 shootout triumph over the Panthers at Verizon Center on Saturday.
For whatever reason, the Caps have been somewhat sluggish early in games this season, especially on home ice. The Capitals have scored just three first-period goals in their seven home games this season while allowing six.
“First, we’ve got to be a team that teams fear to come into our building,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “We need to get our home record better, with good starts to get our crowd into it early.
“I know when you go into some other buildings, it’s tough to play there. You know right from warm-ups that they’re going to come out hard, they’re going to be intense and their crowd is going to be backing them. That’s what the Verizon Center needs to be when teams come in. We’re playing a lot of good teams coming up and a lot of divisional games and we need points. No one has really broken away in our division yet. We had a little bit of a slow start but we’re still in a good spot and we can put ourselves in a good position by the end of the month.”
Washington went into Monday night’s action with the league’s fourth-best power play and the circuit’s second-best penalty killing outfit. The team’s five-on-five play was somewhat anemic in the early going, and the Caps were actually near the basement of the NHL in five-on-five goals for/against ratio before heading out west late last month. They’ve improved that number from 0.50 to 0.93 and are now 19th in the NHL in that category.
“Obviously as everyone knows it’s our five-on-five game,” says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby, who recorded his eighth career shutout against the Flyers on Friday. “But the last two games have been a huge step forward as far as that goes.
“Five-on-five should be simple. You get the puck in, work them low and cycle them until they break down. Some shifts you don’t get it; sometimes you just wear them out. I think at the start of the year we were trying to be too fancy a lot of time, frustrating guys a lot that way and turning pucks over at times when you can’t turn them over. These last two games I thought we did a much better job of that and it transpired into much better five-on-five play and some wins.”
Washington won those last two games without captain Alex Ovechkin in its lineup. Ovechkin was sidelined with an upper body injury sustained in last Monday’s game against the Canucks in Vancouver. He practiced with his Caps teammates on Monday and it seems likely – although not definite – that he’ll return to the lineup on Tuesday against the Islanders.
“I feel pretty good,” said Ovechkin after Monday’s practice. “There’s still a little soreness a little bit, but I’m able to play.
“I’m probably going to play tomorrow and I’m happy to be back.”
Not so fast, says Caps coach Adam Oates.
“I think it’s going to be a game time decision,” says Oates. “He feels obviously a lot better and got through a whole practice. We’ll just make sure that [Tuesday] he is okay.”
In Ovechkin’s absence, Fehr moved from fourth-line center to Ovechkin’s spot on the right side of the first line with Martin Erat and Nicklas Backstrom. Fehr acquitted himself quite well on what proved to be a very effective trio, playing more than 19 minutes each night and picking up three assists in the two games.
At Monday’s practice, Fehr was back in the middle of the ice, centering a line with Marcus Johansson on the left side and Brouwer on the right. Oates wasn’t sure how his lines were going to shake out for Tuesday’s game against the Isles quite yet, but it’s at least possible that Fehr moves back to the pivot position and plays on his fourth different line in 15 games.
“It’s definitely a different challenge than the last one,” admits Fehr, whose natural position is right wing. “Obviously playing wing with Erat and Backstrom, two of the better playmakers in the league, you’ve just got to get them the puck. And now, adjusting back to center, it’s being strong in my own zone and making good outlet passes and trying to get up ice with Jojo and Brouw, obviously two good players in their own right.
“It gives you a new look again. Obviously when you’re playing wing and you’re trying to make plays with your centerman, you know where you want them to be and what you expect out of them. I can take that into [Tuesday]’s game and try to be in better spots and help out my linemates better in the [defensive] zone and in the offensive zone as well.”
The Islanders made a big move last weekend, trading winger Matt Moulson, a first-round choice (in the 2014 NHL Draft) and a second-rounder (in the 2015 draft) to Buffalo in exchange for veteran left wing Thomas Vanek. Vanek averaged 33 goals over his first seven seasons in the NHL, then netted 20 in just 38 games for Buffalo last season.
Adding him to the team’s top line with center John Tavares and right wing Kyle Okposo makes what was already a dangerous top unit even more so, but the Isles have also quietly fleshed out the rest of their forward ranks and are now one of those rare NHL teams that can roll four lines.
New York has 14 forwards who have played at least nine games this season, and all 14 have averaged better than 10 minutes a night.
Washington has won only three of the seven meetings between the two clubs over the last two seasons, and none of those three triumphs were achieved in regulation time.
“I’ve said it actually for three or four years that I think the Islanders are a very underrated team,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “All the notoriety in that market goes toward the Rangers, but the Islanders, I think they embrace that a little bit and fly under the radar. But they’re a very good team.
“They move the puck well; they play as a five-man unit. They’ve got one of the best players in the league in Tavares and they made some adjustments with bringing in Vanek.
“For us, we have to play a solid game. We have to play better than we did Saturday night [against Florida] for sure. They’re a good team. We want to control their speed, control the pace of the game and make better decisions with the puck. And not give them any chances, really, because they have people that if you give them one or two Grade A chances, they can make you pay.”
New York also features longtime Caps arch-nemesis Evgeni Nabokov in goal. The 38-year-old netminder is 12-1-3 lifetime against Washington with two shutouts, a 2.09 GAA and a .926 GAA.
NOTES – Caps left wing Jason Chimera was named the league’s third star for the week ending Nov. 3. Chimera had six points (two goals, four assists) in a week that included a career-high goal scoring streak (four games) and a single-game career-high in points (four) against Philadelphia on Friday. Chimera gave credit to his linemates, Joel Ward and Mikhail Grabovski, both of whom have also been hot lately.
“I’ve been playing with Wardo for a couple of years now, so you get pretty familiar with guys,” says Chimera. “And Grabovski is one of those guys who gets the puck up the ice for us while we do the grind work in the zone. It works out well for all of us. It’s a good line and hopefully we can keep going.”