Coming off a 5-1 loss to the Blue Jackets last night in Columbus, Caps coach Adam Oates juggled up his forward lines again for Saturday’s practice in the Ohio capital, held just before the Caps boarded their charter for Manhattan where they’ll take on the New York Rangers on Sunday.
Oates reunited Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top line and had Jason Chimera, Mikhail Grabovski and Troy Brouwer skating on the second unit. The third line was comprised of Martin Erat, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward and the other four forwards – wingers Aaron Volpatti, Eric Fehr and Tom Wilson and center Jay Beagle – worked on the fourth trio.
“Just for something different in practice,” says Oates of the changes. “We’ll see what we do for tomorrow. Just [wanted] to give the guys a different wrinkle. We had a pretty intense meeting this morning and we talked about the game last night. We’re trying to turn the page to tomorrow and to focus on New York.”
Friday’s four-goal loss was the Caps’ third of the season by that margin, matching their worst setbacks of the season. They also fell 5-1 to Colorado on Oct. 12 and took a 4-0 whitewashing from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the District on Nov. 20.
Of greater concern perhaps is that Washington has now lost four straight (0-2-2), matching its longest losing run of the season. Its most recent four game skid came around the turn of the calendar from 2013 to 2014, meaning the Caps have won only two of their last 10 games (2-4-4) and they are rapidly losing ground in the Metropolitan Division standings. Five of the Capitals’ seven fellow Metro denizens have won at least six of their last 10 games.
Washington’s power play is without a goal (0-for-13) in five straight games for the first time in the 96 games of Oates’ tenure in town. The penalty-killing outfit is just 18-for-26 (69.2%) since the turn of the calendar, and it has surrendered multiple power-play goals five times in the team’s last 17 games.
“I think specialty teams is such a big part of the league nowadays that it’s got to be important,” says Fehr. “When you’re not playing your best hockey, you need your penalty kill to be going at 100 percent You’ve got to give yourselves a chance. It hasn’t been working for us on the penalty kill. Whatever it is, they’ve been able to score one or two goals a game. And when your power play is not clicking, that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Scoring has been a problem; the Caps have managed more than three goals in a game just once in their last dozen contests, and they scored that fourth goal in the game’s 60th minute on Jan. 9 in Tampa.
After allowing two or fewer goals in three straight games – yet still losing two of those contests – the Caps have now allowed a total of nine goals in their last two games.
“It feels like in 5-on-5 play we’re playing a lot better,” says Fehr. “I think we’re using all five guys on the ice a lot better and creating a lot more opportunities. But we’re not scoring. And when we do make that one mistake, it seems like it’s always in the back of our net. The combination of the two is not good right now. We haven’t scored a lot of goals in the last couple of games and I think the guys are starting to squeeze it a little bit, and starting to feel that pressure. We all want to score, we all want to contribute but it’s just not working right now.”
If Oates keeps today’s practice lines intact for Sunday’s game, it would mark the first time this season that Chimera and Ward would be separated.
“They’ve had some success,” notes Oates of the duo. “I’m not sure I’m going to continue with it tomorrow. But just for today in practice, I split up the twins. I asked them both, ‘Are you going to be okay without your buddy?’ It was just to get a little life out there.”
Oates also has to weigh the pros and cons of keeping Ovechkin and Backstrom on the same line or having them split up so the opposing coach has decisions to make about how to defend each line.
“There are pros and cons to everything,” says Oates. “I thought last night when I put them back together, it looked like they clicked instantly because there is a certain chemistry. When you’re used to watching someone, there is a certain symmetry to their game and all of a sudden I saw it right away again. So then you’re like, ‘Maybe I should keep them together, but there are times when you’ve got to break them up.”