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Caps Head West for the Weekend

November 8, 2013
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Nov. 9 vs. Phoenix Coyotes at Arena     

Time: 8:00 p.m.


Radio: Capitals Radio Network


Washington Capitals (9-7)

Phoenix Coyotes (11-4-2)


Washington hauls its four-game winning streak out west for a pair of road games on back-to-back nights this weekend. First up is a Saturday night stop in the desert to take on the Phoenix Coyotes. The Capitals have not been to Phoenix since suffering a 3-2 loss there on Feb. 14, 2011 as part of a much longer journey that covered both sides of the continent.


Phoenix hasn’t been an easy place for the Capitals to play over the years. Since the Coyotes moved down from Winnipeg at the start of the 1996-97 season, Washington is 2-5-2 on the road against the Desert Dogs. The Caps’ most recent victory in Phoenix came on Jan. 16, 2006, a 6-1 triumph highlighted by Alex Ovechkin’s immortal “The Goal,” midway through the captain’s rookie season.


After taking on the Coyotes on Saturday night, Washington will immediately head to Denver where it will finish up its quick trip with a Sunday night contest against the Colorado Avalanche.


The Caps are in the middle of a busy stretch of hockey in which they’ll play five games in eight nights, including this set of back-to-back games in the west. By winning the first two games of that five-game span at home and extending its overall winning streak to four, Washington put itself in good position to fare well during the road portion of the stretch.


Washington’s four-game winning streak was assembled over a period of seven nights, beginning after the team returned from its four-game trip to the western reaches of Canada. During the life of the streak, the Caps have squeaked out a pair of 3-2 shootout victories, including their most recent triumph over the Minnesota Wild at Verizon Center on Thursday night.


Playing the league’s stingiest team in terms of both shots allowed and five-on-five play, the Caps jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first on Alex Ovechkin’s league-leading seventh power play goal of the season. Washington narrowly missed on a chance to make it 2-0 in the first on its second power play of the game, but instead Minnesota rebounded and entered the third period with a 2-1 lead over the Caps.


Marcus Johansson’s tying goal at 16:52 of the third, Braden Holtby’s stellar netminding and a clutch penalty killing effort bridging the end of regulation and the start of overtime helped the Caps push the contest to a shootout, where Washington won it for the fourth time in as many skills competitions this season.


“The good news is we scored a big goal late and we scored it the right way,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “Because there is a team giving you nothing, and that’s the way they play. They keep the shots down, that’s the way they want to win games. And there are at least 10 teams in this league that play like that.


“Our focus has to be that we’re willing to win 1-0. If we score on that second power play, it’s a different game no question. At 2-0, it opens the game up and it changes their decisions. The game can get out of hand, but it didn’t. Because of that, you’ve got to still stay between the guidelines of our plan.


“It’s very frustrating, no question. It’s frustrating for a player that you come into the [offensive] zone and you get all the way to the top of the circle and you’ve got to chip it in from there. And then you’ve got to win a battle when you’ve only skated 20 feet and then it doesn’t feel like you get much accomplished.


“But you have to understand that you are wearing them down. And maybe late in the game, the defenseman rims it a little too far past his winger to get it to our point, and that’s a mistake. That’s a mistake over 60 minutes that maybe that guy, in the first period he made that pass to his winger. In the third period, he rimmed it. And that rim allows our defenseman to get it, and before you know it, we score a tying goal.”


Washington scuffled a bit in its own end in the early stages of the second, but managed to wear down Minnesota’s defense for that elusive tying tally.


“They’re tough,” says Caps defenseman and Minnesota native Nate Schmidt, who grew up watching the Wild. “They’re really tough to play against. They just bottle you up, they just try to win those 2-1, 1-0 games.


“We like to open up our offense a little bit and they just really try to slow us down as much as possible. They like to play you slow, I’ve watched them for years and they’re like that. It’s tough to play against. It’s really frustrating to play against at times, but we’ve just got to stick to the game plan. Overall it was a tough game but it was a big win for us. It keeps everything going, keeps everybody light in the locker room. And when we get to shootouts, it’s always good for us.”


Those two shootout wins were wrapped around victories of larger margins, and Washington has outscored its opponents by a combined total of 17-6 during its four-game winning run.


Offensive outbursts aside, the Caps have quietly but surely improved in their own five-on-five play and in their own end of the ice, areas that plagued them a bit earlier in the season. Washington has now limited its opponents to two or fewer goals in eight of its last 11 games.


“It has a lot to do with our goalies,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera, who inked a two-year contract extension with the Capitals on Friday. “They’ve been playing really well lately. And the [penalty kill] has been a big part of that. Usually teams get a goal or two every night on the power play it seems and our PK has been doing a good job.


“Defensively, we’ve been doing a better job for sure. I think just simplifying our game has been a big key, getting pucks out and getting pucks in is huge. You make them come 200 feet every time it’s tougher for them. It’s easier to go 100 feet than 200 feet so you’ve got to make them go the whole length of the ice. I think our puck management has been better, too, and that shows up in the goals against.”


Although Holtby has been carrying most of the goaltending load, both he and Michal Neuvirth have been strong of late and both will likely be needed on the team’s current two-game tour of the west.


Holtby is 7-2 with a shutout, a 2.04 GAA and a .943 save pct. in his last nine starts. Neuvirth has posted a 2.44 GAA and a .925 save pct. in his last three appearances, two of which were starts.


As Chimera noted, the Caps’ league-leading penalty killing corps also comes in for some kudos in regard to the team’s overall improvement defensively in the last 11 games.


“I think first off,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward, “our special teams on both sides have helped a lot obviously. Four power-play goals against the Islanders [on Tuesday] and good killing [Thursday] night. I think when you’re up there in both of those stats, you’re automatically going to boost up there and win some games for sure.


“But for this road trip, I think going in with a winning streak is a positive. The main thing is learning how to win and I think we’re slowly getting to that. That’s probably one of the toughest things as a team in this league. If you get caught losing games it’s easy to fall into a funk. For us, I think it’s hammering out those details again. Just be alert and pay attention and know who you’re up against on the ice, what teams, and whether it’s Eastern or Western Conference, just know your own details of where you’re supposed to be.”


Pressed to elaborate on his “learning how to win” phrase, Ward was more specific.


“Mentally, we’re just being positive,” notes Ward. “If you’ve lost a couple games, you give up a goal and you think, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ But if you’re winning, you’re not really worried. You wake up in the morning and you just have a feeling you’re going to win. You’ve got that feeling and that mojo.


“For us, it’s important to carry that swagger of being confident and a little cocky. Even though we were down [Thursday], we still had that fight and believed that we could give ourselves a chance. Holts made some big saves and kept us in it, and we got down to the other end and scored a late goal and won it at the end.”


The Coyotes are one of several hot teams in the NHL’s Western Conference. A 5-2 loss to Anaheim on Wednesday halted Phoenix’s five-game winning streak, but the Coyotes have won seven of their last nine games and they’re running third in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division, where each of the top four clubs have at least 24 points, more than all 16 teams in the Eastern Conference going into Friday night’s slate of NHL activity.


The Coyotes are capable of lighting red lamps; their average of 3.12 goals per game is tied for eighth in the NHL. But the Coyotes have been a bit porous in their own end on occasion, too. Phoenix has surrendered an average of 3.06 goals per contest, the fifth-worst mark in the NHL.


Number one netminder Mike Smith is 9-3-2 with a 2.87 GAA and a .915 save pct. for the Coyotes this season, but he has faced more shots (484) than any other goaltender in the league this season. Smith has seen 30 or more shots in 10 of his 15 starts this season, and he has already had two nights this season where the opposition has poured 50 shots in his direction.


“I think it starts the last couple of years with Mike Smith,” says Oates when asked about the Coyotes. “He has given them a little identity the last couple of years and he has really been a backbone for them. He has allowed them to evolve as a team. They’re a very good, well-rounded team. They skate really well, skate fast.”


They also like to involve their defensemen in the attack. Washington will have to be mindful of the Phoenix backline when the Coyotes come past the red line. The Desert Dogs boast three defensemen with double-digit point totals already on the young season.


Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson each have a dozen points in 17 games in 2013-14, and Derek Morris has 10 points in 14 games. Morris has been sidelined with a lower body injury and is day-to-day.


Heading into Friday night’s NHL activity, all three of those Coyotes defensemen rank among the NHL’s top 10 in scoring from the blueline.