Jan. 4 at Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (20-15-6)
Minnesota Wild (21-17-5)
After 23 consecutive games in the Eastern Time zone, the Capitals head west for a quick trip to Minnesota to take on the Wild. The game is the first in the second half of the 2013-14 season for the Caps.
More than 10 years after the Wild came into the league as an expansion team, the Capitals are still seeking their first win in St. Paul. Washington didn’t score a goal at Xcel Energy Center until its third game in the building, and the Caps’ only point ever against the Wild on the road came in a 3-2 shootout loss on Oct. 12, 2006. The Capitals are 0-5-1 in their six previous visits to St. Paul, and they have been outscored by a combined 15-7 in those half dozen contests.
Minnesota is 15-5-2 on home ice this season. Only Boston (17), Pittsburgh (17) and St. Louis (16) have recorded more wins on home ice than the Wild has this season.
It’s been more than three years since Washington made the trek to Minnesota to take on the Wild. The Caps’ last visit here was on Oct. 28, 2010, a 2-1 loss in the back end of a back-to-back set of games in which goaltender Michal Neuvirth notched his first NHL shutout in Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricanes a night earlier.
Washington will be dragging a three-game losing streak (0-1-2) with them out to the Midwest. After dropping set of road games on back-to-back nights in Buffalo and Ottawa, respectively, the Caps returned home and absorbed a 4-3 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night in the first game of calendar 2014 and the final game of the first half of the 2013-14 season.
Losing three straight games to opponents south of them in the standings is likely to be a vexing experience for a team, and that’s the case for the Capitals. But that feeling is tempered a bit, because the Caps have actually played quite well in each of the three games, certainly well enough to win each contest.
“It’s very frustrating,” admits Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “Those are the kind of losses where obviously we hate to lose, but it’s a little bit easier to swallow when you’ve played hard and you’ve done a lot of things right. You use that to try to build off. As long as we can continue to do that, we’ll throw everything else out and we’ll win our share of games.”
Rather than chasing the puck, the Caps are controlling and possessing it. They’ve managed 35 or more shots on net in each of three straight games for the first time in more than three years, but they’ve been on the snakebitten side. Washington has tallied just five times on its last 126 shots for an anemic 4.0% shooting pct.
“We’ve had lots of opportunities to score in those games,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “We’re creating and we’re holding onto the puck, we’re making so that after we do get an opportunity we recover the puck and we get a second or even a third opportunity. I think that’s why our shot totals have gone up. But the pucks just aren’t quite going in for us like we’d like right now. It can be frustrating but we’ve got to stick with it and not get too discouraged and just continue to put shots to the net because that’s how we’re going to win games.”
Although the Caps have had the better of things territorially in the last three games, that domination hasn’t translated into many power play opportunities. The Caps’ vaunted extra-man unit has only gone to work five times in the team’s last three games and is without a goal over that span. This is the first time Washington has gone as many as three straight games without a power-play goal since it went 0-for-11 in a three-game stretch from Nov. 10-15.
Rookie goaltender Philipp Grubauer has started five straight games and nine of the last 12 for the Capitals. He is now 5-2-3 with a 2.20 GAA and a .920 GAA on the season. Washington is still carrying three goaltenders on its active roster; Michal Neuvirth hasn’t played since Nov. 22 and hasn’t been dressed for a game since Nov. 27. Braden Holtby’s last start was on Dec. 21 against New Jersey.
At the midpoint of the campaign, the Capitals are fortunate to be in second place in the Metropolitan Division with 46 points. In any other division, Washington would be south of playoff positioning. Starting with Saturday’s game against the Wild in St. Paul, the Caps must now play 10 of their next 14 games on the road.
Washington caught the Wild at its best earlier this season, and the Caps earned a 3-2 shootout win over Minnesota in that Nov. 7 meeting at Verizon Center. Minnesota was in the midst of a 12-2-1 run at that stage of the season, and the Wild has fallen on some hard times since. Minnesota is 6-12-1 in its last 19 games, and the Wild’s 4-1 home ice win over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night ended a six-game losing streak to close out the calendar 2013 portion of the schedule.
Niklas Backstrom started and won Thursday’s game against Buffalo to earn his first victory since Nov. 23. Josh Harding has been the Wild’s go-to guy in net this season and his 1.65 GAA is tops among all NHL netminders this season. But Harding has been on injured reserve and dealing with adjustments to the medication he takes for multiple sclerosis. His most recent start came on Dec. 31 in a 2-1 loss to St. Louis.
Harding is not feeling well enough to play yet and Backstrom will start for the Wild in Saturday’s game against Washington.
The Wild was outscored by a combined total of 26-13 during the life of its recent six-game skid. Prior to its win over the Sabres, the Wild had gone 10 straight games without a regulation win, taking its only two victories during that span in the shootout.
Minnesota scored a power play goal in its Nov. 7 visit to Verizon Center, marking the third straight game in which it had done so. Since then, the Wild power play outfit has gone 9-for-73 (12.3%) in 26 games.
Heading into Friday night’s slate of NHL activity, Minnesota is tied with Dallas for fourth place in the Central Division standings.