Nov. 7 vs. Minnesota Wild at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Minnesota Wild (9-4-3)
Washington Capitals (8-7)
Seeking to run their winning streak to a season high four games and also to win their fourth straight home game, the Capitals face a tall task on Thursday when the Minnesota Wild visit Verizon Center for the first time since March 25, 2012.
Washington is in the midst of a grueling stretch of schedule in which it plays five games in eight nights against quality opponents, including a pair of back-to-back road games against two of the top four Western clubs in Phoenix and Colorado, respectively. That stretch started on the good foot (trademark, James Brown) with a thorough 6-2 thumping of the New York Islanders on home ice Tuesday night.
Before the Caps head out west for as tough a pair of back-to-backs as you’ll encounter, they’ll host the Wild. Minnesota is currently running third in the highly competitive Central Division.
Washington scored four power play goals for the first time in nearly two years during the course of Thursday’s victory over the Islanders, and it also snuffed out (officially, anyway) all five of New York’s power play opportunities to slide into the top spot in the league’s penalty killing ledger. The Isles did score their first goal of the game just as a Mikhail Grabovski minor expired, but that John Tavares tally went into the books as an even-strength strike.
The Caps drew even and quickly went ahead 2-1 early in the second, and when Kyle Okposo scored for the Isles just 17 seconds later to make it a 2-2 game, the contest appeared to have all the makings of a 6-5 game. But while Washington continued to light the lamp – five times in that second period – it shut down the Isles after the Okposo goal.
That is no easy feat against that team, especially when you consider that New York had three power play chances in the third and could have climbed back in the game. Instead, the Caps held a foe to two or fewer tallies for the third straight game and the seventh time in the previous 10.
“We always talk about playing the right way,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera, “getting pucks deep and doing the right things with the puck. I think the last three games we’ve done a better job of doing that, getting pucks deep and grinding teams down low. That’s how you win in the league; you can’t turn it over especially against a team like the Islanders.
“They’ve got guys like [Michael] Grabner, Okposo and Tavares, all those guys who can hurt you on the rush and you don’t want to turn it over. You’ve got to play the right way with the puck, keep it deep.
“After the Okposo goal, I thought we did a pretty good job of limiting their chances five-on-five and the penalty kill was good and the power play was obviously awesome. Usually when you win the special teams battle, you have a pretty good chance of winning the hockey game. Overall, it was one of our better games of the year, that’s for sure.”
The Caps know that keeping pucks out of their net is going to do them more good in the long run than putting them in at the other end of the ice.
“That’s where consistency comes from,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby, “that’s where winning teams come from, is your goals against and your defensive game. Scoring goals has too much do with luck sometimes; you run into hot goalies and whatnot. Defensively, you’re a group and you can control that. You can control how teams play against you. We’ve been steadily improving, which is a good thing.”
For the first time this season, all four of Washington’s lines were consistently in the opposing end of the ice on Tuesday. The Caps have been better at tilting the ice as a group during the life of their three-game winning run.
“I think everybody has to learn about everybody,” says Caps left wing Martin Erat. “When you play with certain guys you’re learning their ways and how they approach it. It’s easier when the lines get used to each other and you know what other guys are going to do on the ice. I think we have much more speed now coming through the neutral zone and coming with the puck always into the offensive zone. Before that, we were just standing around and nobody knew what to do.”
Erat has been on the left side of the top line for the last three games, and captain Alex Ovechkin rejoined that group against the Isles after missing the previous two games with an upper body injury. He had two goals and an assist on Tuesday, and Nicklas Backstrom – the center for that unit – had three assists.
“Nicky is so easy to read,” says Erat. “He is unbelievable when he is on the ice; he reads the game so well. It’s easy to play with him. With Ovi, he wants to go one-on-one and you have to let him do one-on-ones and make sure he’s got traffic in front of the net when he is shooting and get those second scoring chances and causing a cluster in front of the net.”
The Wild just finished up a four-game homestand with a 3-1 mark, and its visit to Verizon Center is the first stop on a two-game trip out east that will also land them in Raleigh for a game on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Like the Capitals, the Wild has won three straight games, matching its longest streak of the season. Minnesota has nine wins in 2013-14 and they’ve been achieved in a trio of three-game winning streaks.
With an average of 2.69 goals per game, the Wild is in the middle of the NHL’s pack (15th overall) in that regard. Minnesota has had a reputation as a defensively stingy team throughout much of its existence in the league, and this season is no exception.
The Wild allow an average of just 23.7 shots on goal per game, the fewest in the circuit. Minnesota permits an average of 2.06 goals per contest, tied for the fourth best mark in the league.
Over the summer, Minnesota inked 35-year-old incumbent goaltender Niklas Backstrom to a three-year deal at an annual cap hit of just north of $3.4 million annually. But Backstrom got off to a bumpy start this season, and he also missed time with a knee injury. Fortunately for the Wild, backup Josh Harding has stepped up brilliantly.
Harding, who announced he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year ago this month, played sporadically last season. He appeared in just five games for the Wild, coming off a career-high 34 appearances in 2011-12. Harding filled in admirably when Backstrom was injured during the playoffs last spring, but he has taken it to another level early in 2013-14.
Thus far this season, Harding is 8-2-1 in a dozen games played. You need a magnifying glass to see his 1.09 GAA and he has a .951 save pct. Both of those qualitative numbers are league-leading figures among regular starters in the NHL. Harding entered this season with a single-season career high of 13 wins and a career 2.66 GAA and .915 save pct.
“They don’t give up very many shots,” affirms Caps coach Adam Oates. “They’re a good hockey team. They’re playing very well right now. Their goaltending situation, [Harding has] played great, his numbers are great. We’ve got to figure out a way to get it into their zone. Clear our end and get it in their end is where you start. And most nights, depending on the team you play, you have to be – as a group – willing to win a low-scoring game. As long as the guys are mentally ready to play that type of hockey, you’re giving yourselves a good chance.”
After his 5-1 win over the Flames in Minnesota on Tuesday, Harding has five straight victories. He has allowed a combined total of five goals in those five starts, and he has given up as many as three goals just once in his 12 appearances this season.
So the Wild doesn’t allow many shots, and the ones they do permit have been gobbled up easily by Harding for the most part. For Washington, which has scored 16 goals in its last three games, the challenge will be to generate enough shots to win.
“You have to be more patient,” says Erat. “You just can’t give up the puck. They play the system very well and they want to stay in their positions. It’s about patience with the puck, it’s not just throwing it in. You’re not going to get second chances that way and that’s what we want to create, second-chance scoring opportunities and time in the offensive zone.”
“It’s the same way,” says Chimera, “you’ve got to get the pucks deep and go to work. We’ve got a really big team of forwards and even a guy like Backy who is smaller, he plays bigger and is tough to knock off the puck.
“We’ve got to use our size down low, guys like me and [Joel Ward], [Troy Brouwer] and Brooks [Laich] and those guys. We can’t allow them to create turnovers because they’ve got [Jason] Pominville, [Mikko] Koivu and [Zach] Parise and a really good squad now. We’ve got to be leery of them and play the right way. Get pucks deep and go to work that way.”
Minnesota’s power play is clicking at 25% thus far in the young season, second only to Washington’s 27.9% heading into Wednesday night’s slate of NHL activity. The Wild ranks 25th in the league with a 77.8% penalty kill success rate.
Where the Wild shines is at even-strength. Minnesota’s 1.92 ratio of five-on-five goals for/against is tops in the league.