Nov. 27 vs. Ottawa Senators at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (12-10-2)
Ottawa Senators (9-11-4)
Just as they did last week, the Washington Capitals will finish off this week with three games in four nights, and with the first two of those tilts on home ice. The Ottawa Senators make the first of their two trips to the District this season on Wednesday to provide the opposition for the Capitals’ annual Thanksgiving Eve home game.
Washington lost all three games last week, scraping out a point in Saturday’s shootout loss to the Leafs in Toronto to finish the week 0-2-1. The Caps remain in second place in the NHL’s underwhelming Metropolitan Division, and while they trail front-running Pittsburgh by five points, Washington is only seven points clear of the basement-dwelling New York Islanders.
In Saturday’s game at Toronto, Washington did virtually everything correctly. Its one failing was finding the back of the net with regularity, an issue that has plagued most of the team for a few games now.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin scored the team’s lone goal on Saturday against the Leafs, doing so with just 4:10 remaining in regulation. Washington had 50 shots on net for the first time since March 8, 2010 and it launched a total of 101 shot attempts – the most in any NHL game this season – but was only able to light the lamp once.
“We’re making steps in the right direction,” says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. “The slide, I don’t think we’ve played any worse in it than we have when we won. We’re slowly improving in different aspects and trying to figure out how to improve in different places.
“Toronto was a good step in the fact that we had possession of the puck a lot. We weren’t exactly rewarded because we didn’t fight hard enough in the hard areas in front of the net. But it’s one step at a time. As long as we can keep that possession up through the next few games, and improve in those aspects in front of the net and different ones throughout the game, we’re going to win a lot of games.”
Ovechkin is the only Cap to score during the life of the team’s three-game losing streak, and he has tallied seven of Washington’s last 11 goals, starting with his overtime game-winner against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 12. The Capitals have now played a span of 215 minutes and 33 seconds without getting a goal from anyone aside from Ovechkin.
“The way we played that game is how we want to play,” says Caps forward Marcus Johansson. “It was a really good game. Even though we didn’t win, it was a step in the right direction. We need to get back to doing those things every game and eventually it’s going to be a routine.
“Everybody in here can score goals. When we play like that and we create chances, the goal scoring is going to come for a lot of guys. I don’t see that as an issue; we have the skill and the goal scorers to do it. It’s just a matter of time.”
Caps coach Adam Oates changed up his second and third lines for the Toronto game, to good effect. Both the Eric Fehr-Mikhail Grabovski-Troy Brouwer and the Jason Chimera-Brooks Laich-Joel Ward lines dominated territorially for much of the evening, with each line generating a total of 24 shot attempts and a dozen shots on goal.
Oates had moved Grabovski down to the third line earlier in the season, believing that playing alongside Chimera and Ward would help anchor him. That unit was excellent for a month, but now Oates believes Grabovski’s comfort level has improved and he can be moved about the lineup if need be.
“I think he is doing a lot of good things,” says Oates of Grabovski. “He’s picking up the reads in the neutral zone. There hasn’t been times were he’s lost, where before he was actually lost, I think. Now, he seems very comfortable.”
“I feel pretty good, comfortable to play and score goals and win the games,” echoes Grabovski. “Some stuff is similar, but some stuff is very different. Compared to Toronto, it’s different. Not in a good way or bad way, it’s just different. It’s just different hockey. It was a different system in Toronto; the neutral zone system was different, defensive zone was different, the power play was different. Everything is different.”
One thing that was different for Washington – and in a good way – was the team’s ability to move the puck out of its own end in the Toronto game. The Caps had struggled with that aspect of their game in losses to Pittsburgh and Montreal last week.
“I think we had a pretty good effort from us,” says blueliner Karl Alzner. “There were a few times where we panicked a little bit, but we were really trying to focus on us using our speed to get away from guys, to escape and then to make a solid first pass. You can see obviously a huge difference when we are on our game like that and teams give us a little bit of space. With some teams, it’s easier to do against than others. It worked out pretty good for us last game but we’ve only got three goals in the last three games, and that’s hurting us a little bit.
“We are getting better. We had a hiccup against the Penguins, and definitely not our best game against Montreal – though it was definitely winnable for us – and then getting better against Toronto. We’re getting on a better track. We’re upset with the last three games, clearly, but we’re seeing some promise in our game. That’s the main thing. We want to keep building and building and hopefully we’ll be able to break through at the right time.”
Ottawa climbed from 13th place in the Eastern Conference standings in 2010-11 to eighth in 2011-12 to seventh last season. Last season’s improvement was accomplished despite the Sens missing three stars from their lineup for extended periods of time.
Goaltender Craig Anderson, defenseman Erik Karlsson and center Jason Spezza were all sidelined for prolonger periods and yet the Senators held their own in the Eastern Conference, nailing down a playoff berth. Ottawa went on to oust rival Montreal in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs before bowing to Pittsburgh in the second round.
The Sens lost longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson to Detroit via free agency over the summer, but more than made up for that loss by obtaining Bobby Ryan in a trade with Anaheim. Ryan leads the Senators with 11 goals in the early going; he and the now-healthy Karlsson and Spezza comprise the top three on Ottawa’s scoring ledger this season.
A healthy Anderson has struggled in the early going, and so have the Sens. Anderson is 5-7-2 with very mediocre qualitative numbers (3.31 GAA, .900 save pct.), and Ottawa has been relying on Robin Lehner more than it likely expected to at this stage. Lehner has been excellent; he has a 2.40 GAA and a sparkling .940 save pct.
Anderson started off the season with a 4-1-2 mark in his first seven starts, but he is 1-6 in his last eight and has allowed four or more goals in five of those outings.
Ottawa has dropped five of its last seven games, with all of those setbacks coming in regulation. The Sens are concluding a three-game road trip on Wednesday in Washington. They’ll return home to face Vancouver on Thursday and then Detroit on Sunday.