Nov. 17 vs. St. Louis Blues at Verizon Center
Time: 6:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
St. Louis Blues (13-2-3)
Washington Capitals (11-8-1)
Two nights after a 4-3, come-from-behind shootout victory over the Red Wings in Detroit, the Capitals open up a three-game homestand on Sunday night at Verizon Center with a visit from the St. Louis Blues.
Washington’s win on Friday night in Detroit was its second consecutive road triumph over the Red Wings, marking the first time in more than two decades that the Caps have won on successive visits to Joe Louis Arena. The Caps last set of successive wins in the Motor City came when they earned victories on Nov. 19, 1990 and Jan. 22, 1991 to run their road winning streak to four straight over the Wings at the time.
In Friday night’s win, Washington was down two goals going into the third period. The Caps started the final frame on the power play for a full two minutes, but were unable to shrink Detroit’s 3-1 advantage. At the end of the power play, Caps coach Adam Oates tweaked his forward lines, reuniting Marcus Johansson with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.
The move paid instant dividends as the trio combined to produce an Ovechkin goal just 19 seconds into its first shift together. Ovechkin’s shot rang the iron and went past Wings netminder Jimmy Howard to make it a 3-2 game. It was the 385th goal of Ovechkin’s NHL career.
Less than 10 minutes later, rookie Caps center Michael Latta scored the first goal of his NHL career, beating Howard on the rebound of a John Carlson shot from the right point. Latta was skating a shift with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, another trio that managed to find the back of the net on its first shift together.
“It was obviously nice to get it when it mattered so much and not in like a 7-0 game or something,” said Latta, whose rookie counterpart Tom Wilson scored his own first NHL goal exactly two weeks earlier in a 7-0 Washington win at Philadelphia. “We had chances before and it felt really nice for sure.”
Braden Holtby held firm in the Washington nets the rest of the way, and Nicklas Backstrom was the only player whose skills were sufficient enough to light the lamp in the postgame, tie-breaking competition.
“Just looking for a spark as always,” answered Oates after the game, when asked what prompted his line changes. “I actually thought Ovi was looking a little flat. Teams are taking him away on the [power play], so I just tried to generate something. We got lucky with it; the puck had eyes on his goal.
“And then with Lats, [Mikhail Grabovski] was just out there on the [power play] so Lats gets his first one which was a huge goal for us. He went in there against [Pavel] Datsyuk’s line and did the job.”
Grabovski is the usual center with Chimera and Ward.
Asked whether his line changes might stick for Sunday’s game with the Blues, Oates was cautiously noncommittal.
“Yeah, we’ll see,” he replied. “I would think so.”
Holtby made 34 saves to earn his ninth win of the season, and a patchwork Capitals defense – playing without Mike Green (lower body injury) – banded together and limited the Wings to just one even-strength goal.
Four of the six defensemen Washington dressed in Detroit were not in the team’s opening night lineup, including veteran journeyman Tyson Strachan, who was summoned from AHL Hershey the day before the game. Strachan was solid in his Washington debut, logging 21:43 on the night and garnering some well-earned praise from Oates after the game.
“The poise,” answered Oates, when asked what he liked about Strachan’s game. “He’s a big guy back there, but just the poise with the puck. He didn’t get rattled. He gave his partner good passes and we exited the zone. There were probably five times in the third period, we got out because he made a good play.”
Green skated on Saturday, but his availability for Sunday’s game with St. Louis will be determined closer to game time.
“I know he skated and he skated pretty good,” says Oates of Green. “Hopefully that’s encouraging for [Sunday]. If he’s ready to go, he’s going to play.”
Friday’s game was the third time in nine days that the Caps won a game in which they trailed entering the third period. Each of Washington’s last three wins has been achieved in that fashion, with overtime or the shootout being required to determine the game’s final outcome.
“It’s big,” noted Holtby. “You need to do that in order to gain confidence as a team and to gain consistency, obviously. If you do it a couple times where you come back, then in the future you believe in yourselves a little bit more. It’s a credit to our guys for being confident in each other and keep pushing.”
The win in Detroit enabled the Caps to keep pace with front-running Pittsburgh atop the Metropolitan Division. The Caps trail the Penguins by a single point going into Saturday’s slate of NHL activity.
Washington upped its road record to 4-5-1, and now the Caps start a home-friendly stretch in which they’ll play 12 of their next 18 games at Verizon Center. The Capitals currently own a five-game winning streak on home ice, and they’ve quietly put together a 14-3-1 regular season run on home ice dating back to last season.
“Quietly might be the key word there,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “I don’t think we’ve asserted the dominance. The record shows it, but as far as the play and the control on the ice, I don’t think we’ve asserted that dominance.
“So far, I feel it has been a different feeling in the building. Before, it used to feel like the building was just coming down on the ice, like we were just attacking and it was the whole world against their five guys on the ice. I don’t think we have established that yet. But it’s still early in the season. The record is nice, but I still think we can get more dominant at home where we’re winning games 4-0, 4-1, 5-1 and we can do a better job of making it tough on teams here and ultimately make them fear coming in here.”
In addition to a decided slant of home cooking for the next several weeks, the Caps will enjoy a few other luxuries of the schedule on the immediate horizon. Washington will not spend consecutive nights on the road until after Christmas. The Caps play a set of road back-to-backs in Buffalo and Ottawa, respectively, on Dec. 29-30 and that’s the next time they’ll be out of their own beds for successive nights.
Washington also plays exclusively in its own time zone through the remainder of the first half of the season, a span of 23 games in total that started with Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime win over Columbus. The Caps’ next foray outside the Eastern time zone is a one-game trip to Minnesota to face the Wild on Jan. 4.
“That’s great,” notes Laich. “I was unaware of that, but that’s a great look for us. Now, you have to make hay. If you have a break in the schedule like that, you really have to take advantage of those games and put some distance between yourself and some other teams.
“If it’s 23 games, I think you have to have a minimum of 15 of those at least. If you really want to start to separate yourself, you’re looking at 18 if you really want to put the pedal down. This is a stretch of six weeks where you can really make a difference in your season. Because there are going to be some times when you’re going to have injuries, you’re going to go through a lull and you might lose a couple in a row and other teams will get hot. But if you can bank these points early on, it will just make life easier down the road for you.”
Two games into that 23-game stretch, the Caps have two of the 15 wins Laich is looking for.
The Caps are facing a significant challenge in the Blues, who score a lot of goals and don’t give up many. And they have a very good power play, the best in the circuit.
Thus far this season, the Blues are averaging 3.5 goals per game. That’s tied with Chicago and San Jose for the best mark in the league. St. Louis allows 2.28 goals per game, eighth best in the circuit. The Blues are the second-best five-on-five team in the league and they allow the fourth lowest total of shots per game at 25.3 per contest.
St. Louis has limited four of its last five foes to 20 shots on goal or fewer.
As we near the quarter-mark of the 2013-14 NHL season, the Blues own just two regulation losses, tied with the Sharks for fewest in the NHL. Despite their early season success, the Blues are running second to Chicago in the NHL’s Central Division, a point behind the Blackhawks, who have played two more games than the Blues.
St. Louis played on Saturday night at home, downing the Carolina Hurricanes by a 4-2 score. Backup goaltender Brian Elliott started against the Canes, which means the Caps will almost certainly see Jaroslav Halak on Sunday at Verizon.
The Blues are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, and they’ve outscored the opposition by a combined 36-20 over that span. St. Louis has scored first in 10 straight games and in 15 of its 18 games this season.
The Blues also boast the league’s leading goal scorer in Alexander Steen, who has 17 goals in 18 games. Now in his ninth season in the league, Steen’s single-season high in goals is 24, established with St. Louis in 2009-10.
Stick tap to Carter Myers for the primary assist on some statistical data contained herein.