Nov. 22 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Montreal Canadiens (11-9-2)
Washington Capitals (12-9-1)
The Capitals finish up a three-game homestand and start up a busy weekend on Friday night when they host the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center. Immediately after the game, the Caps depart for Toronto where they’ll take on the Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
Washington has split the first two games of the current homestand, getting outshot by a large margin in both games. The Caps earned a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Sunday night, riding a three-goal outburst in the first period to victory. Caps goalie Braden Holtby was excellent, stopping a single-game career high of 46 shots to earn his 10th win of the season in spite of a lopsided 47-20 disparity in shots on net that favored St. Louis.
Three nights later, the Caps were flat against Pittsburgh and the result was a 4-0 loss in a nationally televised game. The Penguins played a nearly perfect road game; Washington had just 10 even-strength shots on goal in the contest and was outshot by a combined 40-18 on the night.
“They were amazing through the neutral zone,” said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner of the Penguins after the game. “They came with speed every single time. They always had three guys, if not three then four. They didn’t give us any time to pinch. It was a great game by them and a bad game by us. We didn’t possess the puck at all; we didn’t get our cycle game going. They were making us turn and chase pucks all night. It was tough, real tough.”
As good as Pittsburgh played, the Capitals did not help themselves at all. Only one of Washington’s 10 even-strength shots on net came from inside of 20 feet, and that was a deflection attempt by Caps’ center Nicklas Backstrom late in the first period when Washington was already looking up at a 2-0 deficit.
The Caps did not manage to muster even the meager feat of consecutive even-strength shot attempts until the 25th minute of the game, when they were already down 2-0.
A lot of Washington’s woes stemmed from the fact that it was unable to exit its own zone cleanly, a problem that has cropped up previously this season. Many of the Caps’ breakout passes in Wednesday’s game went into skates rather than tape, slowing them up and preventing them from cruising through neutral ice with speed.
“You end up taking at least one man out of the play,” explained Brooks Laich in the wake of the loss to Pittsburgh. “The guy that the puck moves to has to stop his feet and turn back and get a puck and gather it, and then he moves it with no speed. Then you’re ending up with either a 1-on-2 rush or a 2-on-2 rush. You’re never outnumbering a team. And then most times you’re going to have to chip that puck and then dump it in and then try and get it back.
“I don’t think we had much off the rush at all tonight. I don’t remember one time where we rushed down the ice 3-on-2 and got a good look or a good shot out of it. And to score in this league you’re going to have to get goals from the rush and from cycling. You’re going to have to make a team defend both.”
For the Capitals, the challenge now is to move on and prove that the Pittsburgh game was an anomaly.
“It’s almost easier to throw out a game like than a big win,” claims Caps left wing Jason Chimera. “You win a game 5-2 and you’ve got a big high and you’re maybe resting a bit. This way, you get pissed off and you get back at it on Friday.
“[Pittsburgh] played probably one of the best road games I’ve seen in a long time. Their neutral zone was really good; they didn’t let us have any speed and they seemed to have five guys back the whole time. They checked us into the ground pretty much. And we played pretty terrible. But give them credit, too. They played a really good game.”
The Caps reconvened on Thursday for practice and they watched some video of Wednesday night’s debacle.
“The first thing I showed them was our execution and our decisions with the puck,” says Caps coach Adam Oates, “that when [Pittsburgh] scored a goal we weren’t ourselves. That should be something that we should have conquered by now.
“And I showed them that up until the too many men penalty with a minute left in the second period, it’s a two-goal game and we’ve had plenty of opportunities to get one and that’s all we needed to get into the game. The third goal [against] makes it very difficult, of course, but until then it’s 39 minutes of the game and we need one.”
Wednesday’s loss might sting a little more because it was for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division and because you always want to put your best foot forward against a heated rival.
The other side of the coin is that there are still 60 games left, including three more with the Penguins and – more urgently – back-to-back games this Friday and Saturday against the Habs and Leafs, respectively. The Caps don’t have the time or the luxury to dwell on the loss to the Pens. And except for rehashing it after Thursday’s practice at the request of the assembled media, they seem to have parked it.
“Our last 10 [games] we’ve played pretty well,” says Laich. “The record is pretty good. We have one little blip in the radar. We’re still a confidence bunch in here and we’re veteran guys and we’re going to respond [Friday].”
“It’s one of those things where you’ve got to look at it as a speed bump,” says Chimera. “You’ve got to learn from it; obviously you can’t play that way. I think guys are in a good mood today, ready to go. I was kind of worried to see what the guys would be like today. But everyone is pretty upbeat. They’ve let it go already and we’ve moved on.”
Although the Caps carried a three-game winning streak and a six-game home ice winning streak into Wednesday’s loss to the Penguins, there have been some disturbing trends, even while the team was rolling to an 11-4-1 mark over its previous 15 games.
The Caps have been giving up a lot of shots on goal. They’ve surrendered 30 or more shots on net in 16 of their last 17 games and in 19 of 22 tilts this season. Holtby is the first Caps goalie in more than seven years to face 40 or more shots in consecutive starts of successive team games that did not go into overtime.
In addition to being outshot by combined 87-38 in the last two games, the Caps were on the short end of a severely skewed (145-95) disparity in attempted shots in the last two games. That hasn’t been an isolated incident this season, either.
“That’s the big thing,” noted Holtby on Wednesday night. “You face a lot of shots against, that means the other team obviously has a lot of possession. And obviously you’re not getting as many chances to score.”
Washington has also picked up five of its 12 victories via the shootout route; no other team in the Eastern Conference has more than three. The Capitals know they are capable of playing better than they have been.
“I think we’d be lying if we said we weren’t fortunate to be in the place we are in the standings right now, just based on the way we’ve played in terms of our potential through the first quarter of the season,” says Holtby. “But we’re not complaining about it. We did work hard in certain areas to get those points, whether it was via comebacks or shootouts or whatnot. But we know we’re going to use it to our advantage that we did grind through this first quarter and we know our potential is far from being reached here in our room. But yes, we need to use games like the Pittsburgh one to fuel the fire and get us on the right track.”
Washington expects to get defenseman Mike Green back in its lineup on Friday after a three-game absence. The six defensemen the Caps put on the ice for Wednesday’s game against the Pens brought a combined total of 634 games worth of NHL experience into that contest. Green is Washington’s second most tenured defenseman with 452 games worth of experience, and he averages 24:19 a night. Getting him back could aid the Caps in exiting their own end more efficiently and in realizing their as yet untapped potential as a team.
“I think the identity of our hockey team when we are on,” says Laich, “is good decisions and execution of those decisions, that’s with the puck.
“When we don’t make good decisions and we don’t execute, then we look like a sloppy team, we look like a slow team and we look like an unorganized team. And vice versa, when we do make those decisions and execute those passes, we look like a fast, dangerous, high-flying, high-octane team.
“We still aren’t on the money yet. It’s not automatic yet; it’s still work. But the drills we do in practice are the looks that we want to see in the game. We’re working on it every day and hopefully it sharpens up and it takes us to the next level. And hopefully soon.”
Montreal hits the District for the first of two visits this season; the Habs will also occupy the visiting dressing room a week from Friday when they return to D.C. a day after Thanksgiving.
The Habs are running fifth in the Atlantic Division at the quarter mark of the campaign. The Canadiens feature excellent special teams and a stingy defense; they rank third in the league in power play prowess (24.1%) and fifth in penalty killing (85%). Montreal has allowed just 2.04 goals per game, second only to Boston among all NHL clubs.
Defensemen P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov are key cogs in the Habs’ offensive attack, and both can generally be expected to skate around 25 minutes a night.
After taking on the Caps in Washington on Friday, the Habs head home to host Pittsburgh on Saturday. They’ll reportedly start backup goaltender Peter Budaj against the Capitals and save No. 1 netminder Carey Price for the Pens.
In four starts this season, Budaj is 3-1 with a shutout, a 1.48 GAA and a .945 save pct. All four of his starts have come on the road this season, and he earned a 3-2 shootout decision over the Blue Jackets last Friday in his most recent appearance. Lifetime against the Capitals, Budaj is 0-2-1 in four appearances with a 2.95 GAA and an .888 save pct.
Montreal is 3-4-2 in the month of November, but the Canadiens are 3-1-1 in their last five. Most recently, the Habs authored an impressive 6-2 home ice triumph over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night.