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Caps Spend Friday Night in Motown

November 14, 2013
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Nov. 15 vs. Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena    

Time: 7:30 p.m.


Radio: Capitals Radio Network


Washington Capitals (10-8-1)

Detroit Red Wings (9-5-5)


Three nights after a late, come-from-behind 4-3 overtime victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Verizon Center, the Capitals take to the road once again for a Friday night date with the Red Wings in Detroit.


The Caps are 1-3-1 in their last three road games, and they’re facing a Red Wings team that has somehow gone six straight games without tasting victory at The Joe. The Wings are 0-1-5 in their last six games at home. 


Defenseman Mike Green traveled with his teammates to Detroit, but he has not practiced with the Caps for the last two days after suffering a lower body injury in Tuesday’s game against Columbus. News of a Green lower body ailment sparks fears of a groin injury, but Caps coach Adam Oates allayed those worries after Thursday’s practice.


“He’s bruised,” says Oates of Green. “It’s not a groin problem. It’s a bruise.


“He’s going to come with us on the trip. He’ll get a couple more treatments and we’ll see how he is in the morning.”


As a precaution in case Green is unable to answer the bell on Friday in Detroit, the Caps recalled defenseman Tyson Strachan from AHL Hershey. The 29-year-old Strachan has played in 120 NHL games over parts of five NHL seasons.


If Strachan were to replace Green in the Washington lineup on Friday against the Red Wings, he would be the third most experienced defenseman in the Capitals’ lineup. With 282 games played in the NHL, 25-year-old Karl Alzner would be the Caps’ senior most defenseman if Green is unable to play. Alzner would be followed by John Carlson (253 games) and then Strachan.


“That’s pretty amazing,” admits a stunned Alzner. “I never would have thought that would be the case at this age. I guess it’s pretty neat. I don’t like that to be the case; I think it would be nice to have a few older guys in the lineup, a little more experience. I think so far, we’re doing okay.”


The Caps have been deploying a threesome of defensemen with fewer than 50 games worth of NHL experience for most of this season: Steve Oleksy (45 games), Alexander Urbom (27) and Nate Schmidt (15).


The total of 622 games of experience delivered by those half dozen defensemen would be far fewer than the three defensemen who would be sitting out Friday’s game because of injury. Green (452 games), John Erskine (461) and Jack Hillen (255) have combined for 1,168 games of NHL experience, but Erskine and Hillen are definitely on the shelf and Green could be.


If Green is out, everyone will have to pitch in to replace the 24-plus minutes he logs on a nightly basis.


“I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” says Alzner. “I think it’s easier to play when you play more minutes. You just get into the game and everything becomes second nature with the plays that you’re making. I don’t mind that. It does suck that that guy isn’t there to take those minutes up. But we’ve had guys who have had to play a lot of minutes because of injuries and situations, so I think everybody is used to it. It’s what you do with that opportunity that counts.”

Despite the dearth of experience on defense, the Caps have been rolling along nicely. They’re 9-4-1 in their last 14 games, and they enter Friday’s contest just a point behind front-running Pittsburgh for the top spot in the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division.


If there is a worry for Washington of late, the team has allowed three or more goals in each of its last three games (1-1-1). More worrisome might be the fact that it has allowed two third-period goals in each of those three games, the last three games of a rugged stretch in which the Caps played five times in eight nights and finished with three contests in four nights.


“I don’t think it’s anything that’s creeping in,” says Alzner, of the recent tendency to surrender third-period goals. “Those plays happen at all points in the game, just depending on when it ends up going into the back of the net. Unfortunately, it’s been in the third and it’s been the worst possible time for them to happen. But I don’t think it’s been anything that doesn’t happen in the first 40 minutes.


“I hope that it’s not a third period problem that we’re starting to develop and that it’s just a coincidence. We want to keep the goals against down. We want to keep them to [fewer than] two. Our team can score plenty of goals. It’s not good to see, but I’m hoping that it’s not a trend.”


Nineteen games into the 2013-14 season, the Caps have already played more than half (eight of 14) of their road game slate against Western Conference opponents. After returning from a quick two-game trip to Phoenix and Denver over the weekend, Washington started a stretch of 23 straight games in the Eastern time zone on Tuesday against the Jackets. That stretch will take the Capitals right up to the end of the first half of the season.


Not only do the Caps play exclusively in the east for the next six weeks or so, they’ll have a very favorable slate in terms of home and road games. The next time the Capitals spend two consecutive nights away from home will be Dec. 29-30, when the club travels to Buffalo and Ottawa, respectively, to close out the calendar 2013 portion of the schedule.


Once Washington returns from Friday’s visit to Detroit, the Caps will play 12 of their next 18 contests at Verizon Center. The Capitals have won five straight games on home ice and are 14-3-1 in their last 18 regular season games in the District, dating back to last season.


“It’s been a tough go travel-wise through the start of the year,” says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby, “but I don’t know how much of an effect it has had on our game. I think we’re still piecing together parts of our game that need to be better.


“We’re lucky to be where our record is right now, based on how we’ve played up to now. I think everyone in this room knows we can play tons better. We’ll use it to our advantage that we’re still in a pretty good spot and take advantage of this time with better travel and whatnot.”


For the first time since 1978-79, the Capitals and the Red Wings are members of the same NHL conference, the Eastern Conference. The Caps and Wings go head-to-head as conference foes for the first time in more than three decades on Friday night.


Back in ’78-79, the Caps and Wings were not only members of the same conference (the Prince of Wales Conference), they occupied the geographically whacky Norris Division along with Montreal, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.


The Capitals finished that ’78-79 campaign with 63 points, one more than cellar-dwelling Detroit. The last time the two clubs met as members of the same conference (and division) was a pair of home-and-home games in Detroit on March 11, 1979 (a 3-3 tie) and in Washington on March 14 (a 4-1 Red Wings win).


The 3-3 tie in Detroit was historically noteworthy in that Caps winger Tom Rowe netted his 30th goal of the season that night, becoming the first U.S. born player ever to achieve a 30-goal season in the NHL. The tie also extended Washington’s unbeaten streak to six games (3-0-3), the longest in franchise history to that point. The game also started a 10-game winless streak for Washington (0-6-4).


Three nights later in Landover, the Caps drew a crowd of 8,201 to the Capital Centre for the rematch. The Wings scored four times in the first period to win going away, and Wings netminder Jim Rutherford (now the general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes) was named the game’s No. 1 star. Rutherford stopped 32 of the 33 shots he faced, and Blair Stewart’s goal at 12:45 of the third period was the lone blemish.


Fast forward to 2013-14, and the two teams are once again occupying the same conference.  


Detroit is in fourth place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division, but the Wings have had some nagging injuries and they’ve lacked secondary scoring. Veteran stalwarts Henrik Zetterberg (10 goals) and Pavel Datsyuk (nine) have accounted for more than 40 percent of Detroit’s offensive output this season.


The Wings have the league’s longest streak of consecutive playoff appearances going at 22.


“Talent,” says Oates, in describing how the Wings have continued to thrive over the decades. “They’ve played the same way for a long time. They’re very cohesive in the way they play. It’s fun to watch them because they’re very freewheeling, but there’s a plan to it. You know there is a plan to it. They’ve done it so often; they know their routes. It’s very difficult [to play against them] when you haven’t seen them in a long time.”


Washington had struggled in Detroit, going without a win for more than a decade. But the Caps finally broke that streak with a 5-3 win on their last visit here on March 19, 2012.


Many of Washington’s young players will be playing at the fabled Joe for the first time in their careers.


“There is an intimidation factor,” concedes Oates, “and we’re going into a lot of buildings with that. There are a lot of banners up there and a lot of famous players over there. But on the flipside, enthusiasm conquers some of that. It’s a one-game elimination where you’re in awe, but you’re so excited, those mistakes don’t show up. I’m hoping that’s the player I get. We’re going into new buildings for the first time and the veterans have got to carry the young guys. That’s part of the deal.”