Jan. 21 vs. Ottawa Senators at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast Sports Network
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Ottawa Senators (21-19-9)
Washington Capitals (22-19-8)
In the midst of a stretch in which they play eight of nine games on the road, the Caps return to Verizon Center for their lone home game during that span, a Tuesday night tilt against the Ottawa Senators.
The Capitals finished out their season series with the New York Rangers on Sunday night in Manhattan, falling 4-1 as their losing skid hit five games (0-3-2). The slide is Washington’s longest since an eight-game losing streak (0-6-2) from Dec. 2-18, 2010.
A pair of roster moves awaited the Capitals when they arrived at Kettler Capitals Iceplex for their Monday morning practice. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer was reassigned to AHL Hershey and defenseman Steve Oleksy was placed on waivers. The Caps will learn at noon on Tuesday whether Oleksy clears waivers; he is almost certain to be reassigned to Hershey as well in the event he does clear.
Grubauer had started 14 of Washington’s last 20 games while the Caps carried three goalies for more than a month, an unorthodox and almost always untenable situation. The Caps won just four of 15 games (4-6-5) during the span in which they carried three goalies.
Grubauer was 5-1-1 in his first eight appearances with the Capitals this season, but he had won just one of his last eight starts despite playing well in most of them. A lack of offensive support was an issue; the Caps scored exactly one goal for Grubauer in six of his last eight starts.
The 22-year-old rookie showed himself to be a very promising netminder at the NHL level, but he was sent back to the AHL mainly because he can be. He is the only one of the Caps’ three goalies who does not require waivers to be sent to Hershey.
“He came up, played really well and he gave us a little life,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “He won some games and it obviously made for a difficult situation with three goalies. We just lost a few in a row and it makes sense to send him back down to go to two [goalies], because we lost that spark, in a sense. He showed he that he can be an NHL goalie. Just go back down and retool your game, keep working on it.”
Grubauer was pulled after allowing the game’s first three goals in each of his last two starts, on Friday in Columbus and on Sunday in Manhattan. His reassignment leaves Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth to handle Washington’s netminding duties.
“We need one of those guys to step up and take it over,” says Oates.
Holtby has struggled in recent weeks, but those struggles represent a small sample size in the impressive body of work he put forth in previous seasons. He relieved Grubauer in each of the last two games, and looks sharper and more confident in the crease.
“It felt more natural,” says Holtby of his last two outings. “I felt more like myself out there, which is good. There were still a couple of plays where I know I can do better but that will come with practice and being comfortable with certain situations. Overall it was a positive.”
Prior to Grubauer’s first start on Dec. 8, Holtby had started 24 of the Capitals’ first 29 games this season.
With just two wins in their last 11 games (2-5-4), the Caps have managed to collect only eight of a possible 22 points during that span. Each of the other seven teams in the Metropolitan Division has amassed at least 13 points during the same time period, mean the Caps have lost at least five points on each of their fellow division denizens over the last few weeks.
The Caps have dropped to fifth in the division. They are five points south of the second-place perch they occupied for much of the first half of the season, and they are only five points north of the cellar-dwelling New York Islanders, who looked to be all but dead and buried not too long ago. The Isles are 8-3 in their last 11, so they’ve picked up eight points on the Caps in just over three weeks time.
“I think there are a lot of little things,” says Oates, on what’s ailing his team. “[Sunday] night’s a tough one; probably the last two games. We get behind the eight ball with penalties and before you know it the score is out of hand. It makes it very difficult and the game loses a little bit of its intensity and it’s hard to come back. We get one [goal back Sunday] night and we give up one. It’s hard to score in this league. We’re playing good goalies every night and it’s hard to fight uphill.”
Washington is struggling in virtually every aspect of the game right now. The Caps have scored exactly one goal in four of their last five games and have tallied a total of seven goals in those five games, three of those coming off the stick of Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin leads the NHL with 35 goals and 13 power-play goals.
“You have to score goals to win games,” says Caps forward Marcus Johansson. “In Pittsburgh, we gave ourselves a chance and we let it go. We have to find a way to close out games, too, when we score goals. It’s tough right now and it’s not really going our way. But we have to dig in and find a way to do it.”
The Caps have surrendered four or more goals in three straight games for the first time since last March 9-12, giving up a total of 13 in their last three contests. Only once in the last 13 games have the Capitals managed to score as many as four goals in a game.
Since the turn of the calendar, the Caps have allowed nine power-play goals in nine games, and the team’s penalty killing outfit has managed to successfully kill only 22 of 31 (71%) of Washington’s shorthanded missions.
Ovechkin’s power-play goal in New York on Monday night busted an 0-for-15 extra-man drought for the Capitals, the longest in Oates’ 97-game tenure behind the bench. It was also the Caps’ first 5-on-3 power-play goal in just under a year, since last Jan. 25.
In eight of their last 12 losses, the Caps have held a lead at some point in the game.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” says Johansson. “It’s not really quite 100 percent and we have to get it to that. Like in Pittsburgh we have to find a way to close the game out. In Columbus, we have to find a way to score when we have chances. We let two in and we didn’t get any [in the first period]. It’s different scenarios every game, I think, and we have to find a way to win them.”
That seems to be the consensus. There is no one single aspect of their game that is dooming the Caps on a night in, night out basis. It seems to be a different combo platter of calamities from game to game.
“It’s a compound group of things,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “One thing usually leads to another. I think our execution needs to be a lot better – making those first breakout passes or forwards making sure the puck gets deep. You don’t make that breakout pass, all of a sudden you’re in your [defensive] zone and you’re scrambling around a little bit and then you take a penalty which has hurt us in the last few games. There are a lot of things that collectively have hurt us, but if I had to narrow it down to one it would be execution.”
Washington will also close out its season series with Ottawa on Tuesday. The Sens have won each of the first two meetings between the two clubs this season, a 6-4 come-from-behind win over Washington at Verizon Center on Nov. 27 and a 3-1 victory over the Caps on Dec. 30 in Ottawa.
The Capitals are 0-5-1 in their last six games against the Sens. Washington has not claimed victory over Ottawa since a 5-3 win in Ottawa on Dec. 7, 2011, the first road victory in Dale Hunter’s tenure as the Caps’ bench boss.
Ottawa comes into Tuesday’s game having lost two straight, but the Senators are 6-2-1 in their last nine games. The Sens dropped a 4-1 decision to the Rangers a day before the Caps did so, that game being played in Ottawa on Saturday afternoon. Ottawa lost a 5-4 overtime game on home ice to division rival on Thursday night.
After a slow start this season, Senators goaltender Craig Anderson has played much better of late. Although not nearly as dominant as he was last season when he was starting to be seen by some as a possible U.S. Olympian, Anderson is 9-2-4 in his last 16 starts, posting a rather ordinary 2.86 GAA and a .909 save pct. in the process.
Anderson is expected to start for Ottawa on Tuesday.
The Caps will have to contend with a potent Ottawa attack that has averaged 33 shots on goal per game (third in the NHL) and is 10th in the league with an average of 2.8 goals per contest. Three of the nine goals the Sens have scored against Washington this season came on the power play.