After a four-day gap between games, the Capitals’ schedule ramps up in both density and intensity in the upcoming days and weeks. Starting with tonight’s tilt in Tampa Bay against the Lightning, the Caps will play six games in the next nine nights and seven in the next 11. Washington will play 13 games in 23 days to close out January and 17 games in 31 nights between now and the Olympic break.
“The four days, it’s obviously good to get the rest,” says Caps defenseman Mike Green. “And usually when you’re playing a lot of games in a short time, you get a feel for the game and the flow. I think this is a good thing for us to have this stretch of games where we are focused and we’ve had this stretch here of practice so we’re prepared for it.”
Setting aside the Olympic break, the next time the Capitals have more than two days between games will be a three-day gap from March 26-28.
“Ideally I think having [the schedule] spread out a little more is better,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “Two days off in a row with no games is plenty in my opinion. Who knows how we’ll react to it, but at this point in the season it might be good for us. We’ve lost four games, maybe it’s nice to just kind of get away and hit the reset button.
“It’s going to be a tough stretch for us, but it could be very beneficial. If we get hot here, we could win five or six of these games in nine days. That changes everything for us. This could be a good thing for us, but also it could be really bad if we continue with the way we play.”
With three days worth of practice prior to tonight’s game against the Lightning, the Caps were able to work on some aspects of their game.
“[Tuesday] we focused on special teams,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “The power play, you can always work on that and on the penalty kill, lately we’ve let in some [power-play] goals and in the game in Minnesota that was really a detriment to our games. And we worked on our neutral zone regroups.
“It’s nice to have a couple of days of practice just to tighten everything back up, just to be predictable again. If you just play games and play games and play games, sometimes you can get a little bit loose or a little bit sloppy and sometimes it takes a good practice day or a good couple of practice days to bring that back.”
The Caps come into tonight’s contest with a four-game losing streak (0-2-2), matching their longest skid of the season. When they last played against the Wild in Minnesota on Saturday night, the Capitals were second in the Metropolitan Division standings.
During its four-day idle span, Washington tumbled to fourth place in the Metro. The Caps have at least one and as many as three games in hand on every other team in the division, but the stretch of games that leads up to the end of the month and to the Olympic break is crucial as teams are vying for optimal playoff positioning going into the break and the March 5 NHL trade deadline.
“We need to start winning,” declares Laich. “I’m sick and tired of losing hockey games and being a middle class – not mediocre – but not one of the elite teams that we’re used to being. I think the second half of the season we’ve got to turn it up. We’ve got to raise our level of play, we’ve got to expect execution, expect things to get done every single night and we’ve got to work on our game to prepare for playoffs.”
If there’s one thing the Caps can take comfort in despite their spot in the standings and their recent struggles, it’s the fact that they’ve actually played pretty good hockey during the life of that four-game losing run.
“You’re never happy with a loss,” says Alzner, “but the last four are pretty much as close as you can get without winning. Two hot goaltenders, holding a team to 11 shots with a 5-on-3 that pretty much sealed the deal. That’s frustrating to see, but at the same time we’re playing pretty decent hockey. It’s an odd mistake here or there that seems to be killing us.
“You hope it doesn’t take to the end of the season to start figuring those things out. Sometimes that’s the way it is. It would be nice if we could figure those things out now and if we could win say seven of 10 games over the rest of the season, that’s going to put us in a pretty nice spot.”
That pace that Alzner refers to would see Washington win 28 of its final 40 games. If the Caps can manage that very tall order, they’d finish with 102 points and a certain berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Philipp Grubauer gets the call in goal tonight, and Martin Erat will be a healthy scratch as left wing Aaron Volpatti draws back into the lineup. Connor Carrick will replace Steve Oleksy on the blueline, and here’s how the Caps are expected to look tonight against the Lightning:
Brooks Laich-Nicklas Backstrom-Troy Brouwer
Eric Fehr-Mikhail Grabovski-Alex Ovechkin
Jason Chimera-Marcus Johansson-Joel Ward
Aaron Volpatti-Jay Beagle-Tom Wilson
Karl Alzner-John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov-Mike Green
John Erskine-Connor Carrick