Jan. 9 at Tampa Bay Lightning at St. Pete Times Forum
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (20-16-6)
Tampa Bay Lightning (26-13-4)
After a four-day break in the schedule, the Washington Capitals are back in action on Thursday night when they travel to Tampa to take on the Lightning. The game follows the Caps’ longest break between games leading up to the NHL’s February break for the Olympics, and it starts a busy stretch in which Washington will play six games in a span of just nine nights.
Washington lugs a four-game losing streak (0-2-2) with it to Florida, a skid that matches its longest of the 2013-14 season. The Caps went 0-3-1 during a stretch in the latter half of November.
Caps coach Adam Oates recently rejiggered his forward lines, and from the looks of things over the last three days of practice, he is preparing to do so again for Thursday’s game against the Lightning. Brooks Laich is expected to move up to the left side of a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer while Marcus Johansson moves to the middle of a unit with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.
The recently cobbled trio of Mikhail Grabovski skating between Eric Fehr and Alex Ovechkin will remain the same.
“One of the big things has been Brooksie’s health,” says Oates of the most recent line shuffle. “We’ve never had a chance to change things up and try things because of his health. Even though he only came back for a couple of games – and hopefully he stays – but I want to see what it looks like before it’s too late.
“He’s played a couple of games; he’s feeling good. I wanted to put him with Backy and see where that goes. If we can create two lines with two different guys, that affects teams’ match-ups. At the same time we’re trying to get a balance in speed and looking for chemistry at all times.”
Laich has played in each of Washington’s last two games after missing 14 of the previous 15 games with the same lower body injury that kept him out of 39 of the Capitals’ 48 games last season and all of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Actually I felt pretty comfortable between Joel and Jason in Minnesota,” says Laich. “It was switched late in the game and then I came into practice [on Monday] and the jerseys were switched.
“Brouw and I spent the majority of the year so far together and then Nicklas, I’ve played with Nicklas for eight years, a lot of power play time together and we’ve played five-on-five together, too. It’s not that big of an adjustment, and I think the line will be really good.”
Laich and Brouwer were the wingers on a line with Grabovski and later Johansson in the middle earlier this season. Both of those units struggled in the possession game.
“Me and Brooksie had some troubles at the beginning of the season with our puck possession,” admits Brouwer, “not just turning pucks over but not being able to keep the puck when we have it. With Nick on our line, hopefully us three can manage the play, manage the puck and make sure that we’re creating some offense rather than just skating up and down the ice.”
Ovechkin has more goals than all three member of each of Washington’s other lines, but these moves leave the Backstrom line with a total of 23 on the season and the Johansson unit with a total of 25. The moves are designed to give the Capitals two strong lines that will give the opposition pause in its match-up strategizing, but in a perfect world it would result in three units that would be dangerous offensively.
“[Oates] expects us to be a top line and to be a line that other teams want to put their checking line out against so we can take a little bit of pressure off of Ovi and his line maybe free them up a little bit,” says Brouwer. “Whenever you can have two lines that can really control the play and really are offensive threats, it makes it a lot more difficult on the other team.”
Washington has scored three or fewer goals in six straight games and is 1-3-2 during that span. Prior to the Caps’ current run of half a dozen straight games with fewer than four goals scored, Washington’s last streak of that ilk that was longer was the first 11 games of the 2012-13 season (2-8-1).
The Capitals waived defenseman Alexander Urbom on Tuesday and recalled blueliner Connor Carrick from AHL Hershey on Wednesday. Urbom was claimed by the New Jersey Devils, from which the Caps originally claimed him back in early October.
Thursday night is Tampa Bay’s only home game in a span of 17 days. The Bolts are currently in the midst of a stretch in which they’ll play seven of eight games on the road, and they just finished off a four-game road run out west with an impressive 3-1 mark. The Lightning toured Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg – mirroring a trip Washington made in reverse order back in October – and it won at every stop except Edmonton.
Tampa Bay has been without sniped Steven Stamkos (broken right tibia) since mid-November, but the Lightning has remained more than viable in the Atlantic Division standings without him. Since squandering a 3-0 first-period lead in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Capitals at Verizon Center on Dec. 10 in the only previous meeting between the two teams this season, the Lightning has gone 9-3-1 in a stretch of 13 games. Tampa Bay has surrendered two or fewer goals against in 10 of those 13 games.
The Lightning is allowing an average of 2.33 goals against per game on the season, fifth best in the NHL and third among all Eastern Conference clubs.
Tampa Bay lost goaltender Ben Bishop to an upper body injury in the team’s Jan. 5 game at Edmonton. Anders Lindback came on in relief in that game and started the trip finale in Winnipeg two nights later. Bishop, who is currently on an 8-0-2 run, is listed as day-to-day.
Heading into Wednesday’s limited slate of NHL activity, the Lightning is second in the Atlantic Division. The Bolts are two points behind front-running Boston and a single point ahead of third-place Montreal.
After hosting the Capitals, the Bolts depart for a three-game journey that will take them to Philadelphia, Columbus and Manhattan.