Dec. 7 vs. Nashville Predators at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Nashville Predators (13-13-3)
Washington Capitals (14-12-2)
Washington concludes a quick two-game homestand on Saturday night when it hosts the Nashville Predators at Verizon Center. For the Capitals, the game is the front end of the team’s third set of back-to-back games in as many weekends and its fourth set of back-to-backs in the last five weekends.
Although Washington is tied for second place in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division and the Predators are tied for last in the Central Division, the Caps are only one point ahead of the Preds overall.
The Caps’ modest two-game winning run came to a halt on Tuesday when they absorbed a 4-1 loss at the hands of Metro foe Carolina. Although the Caps were happy with the way they played for the first 30 minutes of the game, they trailed 1-0 at the midpoint of the contest. Carolina blew it open with three goals in less than four minutes just past the midpoint of the second, enabling the Hurricanes to take a 4-0 lead into the third period.
Washington spoiled Justin Peters’ shutout bid early in the third when Caps defenseman Mike Green scored on a power play, his first goal of the season.
When the Capitals returned from a tough set of weekend back-to-back games on the road in Phoenix and Colorado just over a month ago, the team looked ahead to a favorable stretch of scheduling that had the Caps playing 23 straight games in the Eastern time zone and going 47 nights without being on the road for consecutive nights.
“It’s big for us,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer of the team’s schedule. “You saw that first month of the season where we spent a lot of time in the central and the western time zones, we struggled a little bit with the time changes. So being in our own time zone, being around our families and being home a lot, it’s an advantage for us. And we’ve got to take advantage of it.
“I know guys are excited to be home and have a lot of home games around the holidays. It’s always tough when that time of year comes around and you’re on the road a lot. We’ve been fortunate in our scheduling, and I know [Caps general manager] George [McPhee] works hard on that to make sure that we have as favorable as possible of a schedule.”
It looked as though the Caps were poised and primed to take advantage of that stretch of games, which comprises more than a quarter of the season. Washington won three straight games, putting itself in position to take over first place when the Penguins visited on Nov. 20. But Pittsburgh whitewashed the Caps 4-0, setting them off on their current 2-4-1 tailspin.
Although the Capitals are 9-5-2 since the start of November, they go into the Nashville game with just one regulation win in their last 13 games. That covers a span of 31 days.
Goaltender Braden Holtby didn’t make it through the Carolina game on Tuesday; he was pulled in favor of rookie Philipp Grubauer after the second period. Holtby surrendered four goals on 23 shots. A hallmark of Holtby’s résumé over his brief NHL career is the ability to bounce back after bad losses and/or difficult outings.
In 20 starts that have followed games in which Holtby was either pulled or allowed four or more goals, he is 14-4-1 with two shutouts, a 2.11 GAA and a .930 save pct.
The only time this season that Holtby went consecutive starts without helping the Capitals to earn at least a point was Oct. 5-10 when he dropped consecutive regulation decisions to Dallas (2-1) and Carolina (3-2), respectively.
Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth has been sidelined since Nov. 29 when he stepped on a puck as he took the ice for warm-ups before a scheduled start against the Montreal Canadiens. On Friday, Neuvirth made it through his first full practice since sustaining the injury.
“It’s getting better every day,” says Neuvirth. “I’m happy I made it through a first practice. It’s a good first step. I’ve just got to keep moving forward and getting better.”
Neuvirth doesn’t believe he’ll be ready for game action this weekend. With a second game in as many nights on Sunday against the Rangers in New York, the Caps could turn to Grubauer to start that second game. Washington bench boss Adam Oates says the decision will likely be based on how things go on Saturday against the Predators.
As mentioned, Washington is tied for second place in the Metropolitan with the New York Rangers. But the Caps have been idle since that loss to the Hurricanes on Tuesday. Depending on the outcome of NHL games between now and puck drop against the Predators on Saturday night, Washington could have the company of two other teams in that second-place tie with the Rangers, and the whole group of teams could fall beneath Carolina in the standings.
New Jersey (28 points) hosts Detroit on Friday night, and Philadelphia (28 points) visits Dallas on Saturday afternoon. Carolina (29 points) could move into sole possession of second if it is able to author a win on home ice against San Jose on Friday. Seventh-place Columbus (25 points) plays host to Minnesota on Friday. If the Jackets win, they’ll still be in seventh. But they’d be only three points shy of Washington.
This weekend’s set of back-to-backs looms crucial for the Capitals.
Nashville comes to town having lost four straight games (0-3-1). The Predators scored a combined total of five goals in those four losses, the most recent of which was a 5-2 setback at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night. The slide encompassed a four-game homestand in which Nashville managed just one of a possible eight points.
With an average of 2.24 goals per game, the Predators are tied for 24th in the NHL in that category and Nashville’s .71 ratio of five-on-five goals for and against is 28th in the league.
While Nashville is traditionally a defensively stingy team, they suffered for a while from the loss of goaltender Pekka Rinne, sidelined since October with a hip infection. The Preds hope to have Rinne back practicing later this month.
In Rinne’s absence, the Predators initially turned to first-year journeyman Carter Hutton. Hutton had a few good games early in the season, but then endured a stretch of six straight appearances in which he surrendered three or more goals.
Enter Marek Mazanec. The Preds’ sixth-round choice (179th overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft, Mazanec was recalled from AHL Milwaukee on Nov. 5. Less than a month later, he was named the NHL’s rookie of the month for November. In his first month in the circuit, Mazanec posted a 5-4-1 record to go along with two shutouts, a 2.00 GAA and a .932 save pct. in 11 appearances (10 starts).
Mazanec has dropped his first two decisions of December.
“They’re one of the teams that really stick together,” says Caps forward Eric Fehr of the Predators. “They play as a five-man unit and it makes it difficult; it doesn’t matter who they have in the lineup there. They’re tough. If you beat one guy, you’ve got to beat two and so on. They play a good game and obviously we’re going to have to try to work around it.”
The Predators got some good news on Friday when franchise defenseman Shea Weber practiced with the team for the first time since taking a puck to the eye in a Nov. 28 game against the Edmonton Oilers. The Preds went on to lose the game against the Oilers, and they went 0-2-1 in the three games Weber missed. Weber is tied for the league lead in goals among defensemen, and the Preds are 7-0-0 when he scores this season.
Saturday’s game marks the return of ex-Caps forward and fan favorite Matt Hendricks. Last July, Hendricks signed a four-year contract with Nashville as an unrestricted free agent. He spent the previous three seasons with the Capitals, totaling 18 goals, 42 points and 278 penalty minutes in 203 games with Washington.