Jan. 2 vs. Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (20-15-5)
Carolina Hurricanes (14-16-9)
The Caps open up the calendar 2014 portion of their 2013-14 schedule and also finish out the first half of their ’13-14 slate on Thursday night when they host the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center. Thursday’s visit is the Hurricanes’ third and final trip to the District this season, and the fourth of five meetings between the two Metropolitan Division rivals.
Washington is back in town after finishing out calendar 2013 with a frustrating two-game road trip in which it faced a pair of Atlantic Division teams on back-to-back nights. The Caps put a single-game season high 50 shots on Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller on Sunday night in Buffalo only to fall 2-1 in a shootout. A night later in Ottawa, 35 shots on Sens goalie Craig Anderson led to just one Washington goal and a 3-1 Capitals loss.
“I definitely feel like those two games got away from us,” laments Caps forward Eric Fehr. “Those were very winnable games for us. I thought as a team we played pretty well, but it was almost like it was the Miller of old and the Anderson of old. They just held their teams in it. We’ve all been in those games before, some games it just doesn’t go in and that’s the way it is.”
While the Caps have won just two of their last seven games (2-3-2), Philadelphia has won four straight games to creep within a single point of the Capitals for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
Seeking to spark his team’s offense, Oates made some tweaks to his top two forward lines at Wednesday’s practice, and the fourth line could also take on a new look on Thursday against the Hurricanes if forward Brooks Laich is deemed healthy enough to return to action after missing 14 of the last 15 games with a lower body injury.
“It’s funny,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “We played two good games [on the road], and we beat the Rangers [at home on Dec. 27] and it’s probably our worst game in the last five. You want points, and I want the team to play correct. And just looking for a little chemistry change. You’re looking for a little spark, a little chemistry, and it could go back two shifts into the game.”
For Wednesday’s practice, Oates flipped the right wings on his top two lines, putting Troy Brouwer with Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson and installing Alex Ovechkin on the starboard side of a unit with Eric Fehr and Mikhail Grabovski.
“It just gives us a bit of a different look,” says Fehr. “Obviously we’ve been going with the same lines for quite a while and haven’t necessarily had the success five-on-five we’d like. I think the last two games were actually two of our better games five-on-five, we just weren’t able to score. So we’ll just reset it and hopefully we can get a little bit more luck with these lines.”
Washington has netted just five goals in five-on-five play in its last four games. The 85 shots the Caps have poured toward the opposing net over the last two games is the most they’ve had in any two-game span this season, and somewhat ironically Washington has had only four power play opportunities in the last two games, the fewest number of man-advantage opportunities it has had in any two consecutive contests this season.
“We’re not creating enough,” says Backstrom. “Maybe [Oates] wants to change it up and get some new looks. It can give us all a wake-up call, maybe. I think that’s something you do when you aren’t scoring. Maybe it felt like something he had to do.
“I think Brouwer is a hard-working guy. He’s a good forechecker and he hits guys. Hopefully we can get the puck in the offensive zone and play there. I’m looking forward to it.”
Oates is more patient than most coaches when it comes to giving rope to his forward lines. But sometimes – and especially at this stage of the season – just a tweak or two can have the effect of opening a window and letting in some fresh air.
“I can definitely see how that can be the case sometimes,” says Fehr. “Sometimes, you come to the rink and you see a big shakeup and it just stirs up the room a little bit, gets everybody buzzing a little bit. Whether it’s good or bad, it puts a little bit of energy into the room. Guys start joking about different things and I think it brings a little bit of a different atmosphere to the room. I definitely think it can be a positive thing.”
Rookie goaltender Philipp Grubauer has started eight of Washington’s last 11 games, including both ends of the back-to-back on the road trip to Buffalo and Ottawa. Oates wouldn’t say on Wednesday which goaltender he would go with on Thursday against Carolina, but Grubauer made 39 saves in the Caps’ 4-2 win over the Canes on Dec. 20.
Home games in the month of January will be a relative rarity for Washington. The Caps will play 10 of their 15 games on the road this month, including seven of their last eight January games.
Carolina comes to town in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division, six points behind the second place Capitals. The Canes have taken two of the three previous meetings between the two clubs this season, including both games played here at Verizon Center. The last time the Caps failed to get a point from their home games against the Carolina franchise was in 1991-92 when Washington hosted the then-Hartford Whalers just once, losing 8-2.
Washington took the last meeting between the two clubs, the aforementioned 4-2 triumph in Raleigh on Dec. 20.
The Hurricanes come in fresh from a 5-4 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens in a home ice game on New Year’s Eve. That victory ended a five-game skid (0-3-2), but Carolina sputtered its way to the turn of the calendar with a 2-4-4 mark in its last 10 games of 2013.
Carolina went through the first 36 games of this season without scoring more than one power play goal in any game. The Canes ended that streak on Dec. 23 when they went 2-for-6 with the extra man in a 4-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Raleigh. Carolina went 2-for-10 on the power play in Tuesday’s win over the Habs, and the Canes are now 5-for-19 (26.3%) with the extra man in their last four games.
Franchise goaltender Cam Ward has started each of the last two games, doing so for the first time since he started five straight games from Nov. 23-Dec. 1. Ward was dented for four goals in each of those last two starts, and he has now surrendered three or more goals in eight straight games and 10 of his last 11.