Jan. 24 vs. New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast Sports Network
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (22-19-8)
New Jersey Devils (21-19-11)
Washington embarks upon a five-game road trip when it makes a Friday night visit to Newark to face the Devils. The Caps are lugging along a six-game losing streak (0-4-2), their longest in more than three years, as they head out on the road to play five games in a span of eight nights.
From mid-December into mid-January, holding a lead was a big problem for the Capitals. Lately, merely getting a lead has been elusive. The Caps won only four of 14 games (4-5-5) from Dec. 17 through Jan. 15, despite holding a lead in eight of the 10 games they lost.
Since then, the Caps have lost three straight games in regulation. They’ve been unable to take a lead in any of those games, and they’ve also dropped four straight games in regulation for the first time since Nov. 25-Dec. 1, 2011.
Most recently, the Caps fell 2-0 to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night at Verizon Center. The whitewashing left the Capitals with a grand total of just seven goals scored in their last six games. Caps captain and league-leading goal scorer Alex Ovechkin is responsible for scoring three of those seven goals, but he missed the Ottawa game with a lower body injury and is questionable for Friday’s game against the Devils as well.
Most of the rest of Washington’s attack has been in a deep mid-winter slumber of late. Caps coach Adam Oates is normally quite patient with his line combinations, often allowing his trios the luxury of several games in which to develop some chemistry. But Oates has had to do a great deal more frequent tweaking and juggling of late, trying to find a spark and get something going.
Oates re-jiggered a couple of his lines at Thursday’s practice, putting Mikhail Grabovski between Martin Erat and Eric Fehr and reuniting wingers Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, with Brooks Laich manning the middle.
“I think it’s great,” says Fehr of the new configuration. “We’ve got a lot of offensive players on our team and they bring a little bit of something different to the table. With Marty and Grabo, they’re both good playmakers and they both hang onto the puck really well. I don’t see myself having to be a puck possession guy; I can really rely on trying to get open and just getting those guys the puck. I like playing with natural passers, and I think both of those guys are very natural passers.”
It’s been a dozen years since Washington has scored one or zero goals five times in a span of six games, but that’s where they are heading into Friday’s game with the Devils.
What to do to rectify that anemic attack and get the Caps back on the winning track? Opinions vary.
“I think first and foremost it comes down to specialty teams,” says Fehr. “We have to stay out of the box. When you’re not scoring goals, you can’t take penalties. That’s pretty much what it comes down to. We’ve been doing that the last couple of games; we’ve allowed a power play goal it feels like every game. So when you’re not scoring goals and you’re giving up a power play goal every game, you’re not going to win many games.
“We’ve got to stay out of the box, play 5-on-5, hope for a bounce here or there and if you do get a power play, you’ve got to capitalize on it. Those are your five best players on the ice at the time and those guys have to step up and try to get a goal for the team.”
Washington’s power play is 1-for-21 in the team’s last seven games. The Caps have allowed at least one power-play goal in six of their last seven games and eight of 10 games this month.
“I think just simplifying things is the biggest thing,” says Chimera. “You just shoot pucks you don’t normally shoot. You look at the shot totals and if you have five shots or more you should come away with a goal. Not so much if you’re Ovi, because he shoots everything. And a lot of them go in. So you’ve got to take a lot of shots. You’ve got to get to those areas.
“A lot of times you look at the tape and you’re going outside of the defenseman instead of inside. It’s just little things like that to make it easier on yourself. Don’t do anything fancy. That’s a Green Line motto. Just get the puck deep and go to work, get some pucks on net and get some goals that way. I know we’re a possession team and guys want to possess, but sometimes if you’re not scoring you’ve got to do the simple things to score goals.”
The Caps had 34 shots in their 2-0 loss to the Senators on Tuesday, but 16 of those came from defensemen.
“We need those ones,” begins Chimera, “the scrambles in front of the net where everybody’s whacking and three guys are scrambling and the defensemen are in the play. It seems like when the puck is bouncing, it’s bouncing the wrong way now. And when [the opposition] shoots it, it’s finding a hole and going in. It’s one of those things where you’ve got to get back to the simple things. Crash the net, get two guys there, have two or three guys whacking away and whack in some rebounds. A lot of goalies are too good to score against straight-up now, because they read your stick and they read the puck coming off it so well. Those kinds of goals are the goals we’ve got to score.”
Laich echoes Chimera’s thinking. Shoot the puck.
“I think you need to have a thought process when you step onto the ice of shooting the puck,” says Laich. “When you jump over the boards to get on the ice, have a thought process of ‘Okay, if I get the puck in the offensive zone, I’m first going to look to get it at the net and second, I’m going to look to pass.’ Secondly, guys without the puck work to get into a position to make somebody get the puck to the net. And if you do get into position, maintain it. Fight to maintain it, fight to stay there. Do something extra to find a way to get a goal.”
For Oates personally, it’s fairly simple. Stay the course, and be the same guy you’ve always been. Don’t turn into Mike Keenan, and don’t turn into Knute Rockne.
“I talked about it with the other coaches today,” says Oates. “For me, I have to be consistent. I can’t come in and all of a sudden turn into a different person. You’ve going to have losing waves; you’re going to. We’re not happy about it, but we have to be just as professional as if we were winning 10 in a row because obviously it can flip.
“To me, being professional is showing good things in the video. Against Ottawa, we did some good things. Obviously we didn’t score. We gave them a goal off the rush and a [power-play] goal. They didn’t do much 5-on-5 against us, so there are some positives there. We had a lot of chances but there are still a lot more chances out there to be had if we play just that much more correct. We’re just professional, the same way every day.”
New Jersey has pulled at least a point from seven of its last eight games (4-1-3) and it has pulled ahead of the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division standings. The Devils’ longest winning streak of the season is just three games (Nov. 16-21) and they’ve only achieved that once, but New Jersey has managed to keep a steady stream of points coming in, just enough to keep it on the outskirts of the playoff picture.
Typically stingy defensively, the Devils are third in the NHL in goals against and 26th in the circuit in goals scored. In the only previous meeting between the two teams this season, the Caps coughed up a two-goal lead in the third period en route to a 5-5 shootout loss to the Devils at Verizon Center on Dec. 21.
Two of New Jersey’s top four scorers (Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder) are newcomers to the team this season, as is goaltender Cory Schneider. Schneider and future Hockey Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur have split the netminding chores fairly evenly this season, and Schneider is expected to get the net on Friday against Washington. His 1.88 GAA and .926 save pct. belie his pedestrian 8-9-7 record.