Jan. 28 vs. Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center
Time: 7:30 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (23-21-8)
Buffalo Sabres (14-30-7)
Washington heads out on the second leg of its five-game road trip, taking on the Sabres in Buffalo on Tuesday night. The game closes out the season’s series between the two clubs; the Capitals are seeking their first win over Buffalo this season. The Sabres have taken a pair of 2-1 shootout decisions, the first in Buffalo on Dec. 29 and the second in Washington on Jan. 12.
The Caps halted a seven-game skid (0-5-2) – their longest in more than three years – on Saturday night in Montreal with a dominant and convincing 5-0 win over the Canadiens. Braden Holtby made 21 saves to earn his second shutout of the season and the ninth of his NHL career, and five different Caps lit the red lamp. Three of those goal-scorers – John Erskine, Jay Beagle and Casey Wellman – found the range for the first time this season, and 13 Caps skaters recorded at least a point in the contest.
For their next challenge, the Caps need to find a way to use that Montreal performance to spark them in the three games that remain on this road trip and the seven games between now and the Olympic break. While Washington was in the midst of a long winter’s nap, the rest of the Metropolitan Division was piling up points. As a result, the Capitals plummeted from second all the way down to seventh place in the Metropolitan standings.
“We can’t think that one game is good enough and goals are going to come just because we were able to put five in the other night,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “We are going against a team that we’ve had struggles against, lost two games in a shootout against them and only scored two goals in two games.
“They sit back a little bit, they wait for their opportunities. We’ve just got to be tight through the neutral zone, making sure we’re not turning over pucks and not giving them any life. That’s why we’ve been losing, because we’ve been trying to create too much, trying to score goals and pucks are coming back our way and going in our net. So we’ve got to get pucks low, get traffic to the net and just try to hem them in and get a lot of momentum in a tough building.”
On the morning of Dec. 28, the Caps woke up to find themselves in second place in the Metro, six points ahead of their closest pursuers and 13 points behind front-running Pittsburgh. A month later, the Caps are in seventh in the Metro and 13th in the 16-team Eastern Conference standings. Although they’re still only five points shy of second place, the Caps have a pile of teams to climb over and a shrinking calendar to contend with. Thirty games remain, nearly a quarter of them between now and the Olympic break.
“We want to really make a push before the Olympic break,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera. “It will be a good feeling being in the playoffs instead of looking up at the break. I know you’ll enjoy your break a little more than you would if you’re out of the playoffs.
“It’s kind of like the stock market, it’s nice on Friday when it ends on a green note so that you’re looking at green for the rest of the weekend. It’s a similar kind of thing. You want to have a good feeling going into the Olympic break, I think guys realize that for sure.”
While the Caps were winning three of 14 games – including Saturday’s victory over the Habs – over the last month, each of the other seven clubs in the division was winning at least seven games. The Caps picked up 10 points in the last month, seven fewer than every other club in the division. While Washington staggered along with a 3-7-4 mark since Dec. 28, the rest of the division combined to post a 61-30-8 mark.
The Caps were 15 points clear of the last place New York Islanders on Dec. 28. Today the Isles are the only team below the Caps in the Metro standings, but New York is only four points behind the Caps.
“It’s been a strange season on our part,” says Holtby. “Points are coming sometimes in games where you don’t expect them to and they’re not there in games when you do feel like you deserve them. It’s been strange that way, but we can’t focus on that anymore.
“If you look at the teams that we’re now behind like New York and Columbus, they don’t look like they’re going to have any let-ups. That should be motivation for us to make sure we played like we played in Montreal in every game to show them that we can match them and pull ahead sooner or later.”
The good news for the Caps is that they’ve actually played better hockey over their last 14 games than the record would indicate. From a puck possession standpoint, the Caps have performed much better over the last month than they did earlier in the season. Going forward, the idea is to maintain that diligent, puck possession mindset while simultaneously alleviating the untimely and backbreaking mistakes that were so frequently responsible for defeat.
“When we possess the puck, we’re a great team,” opines Chimera. “Our D were making good passes last game, and that makes it look easy for us. When you’re losing, you do things that aren’t normal, like throwing it up the wall to people and they can’t get it because guys are always pressuring you.
“With our D, we’ve got guys who can really move the puck. We’re going back and forth a little more now [in our own zone], and that helps out with creating some holes. It was nice to see our execution be a lot better, because it was lacking for a long time.”
Aside from captain Alex Ovechkin, the Caps’ top nine forwards have been offensively fallow over the last month. Despite missing two of the Caps’ last 14 games, Ovechkin has six goals during that span. The other eight members of Washington’s top nine have combined for just 13 goals in those 14 games. Chimera (three) is the only one with more than two.
Former fourth-liners Beagle and Tom Wilson have combined to form an effective third line with Chimera over the last game and a half, a shift brought about because of an injury to center Mikhail Grabovski during Friday’s loss to the Devils in New Jersey.
“I thought they played very well Saturday and Friday night,” says Caps coach Adam Oates, speaking of Beagle and Wilson. “I put them with Chimmer the second half of the game [on Friday]. They scored and had a lot of momentum swings for us and played good.”
Chimera scored Washington’s only goal on Friday and Beagle converted a feed from Wilson for his first of the season on Saturday.
“You want to be able to put them out there in all situations,” says Oates. “Playing with Chimmer, all of a sudden you’ve got three fast guys that are big and strong. If they can continue to protect the puck and put the puck in the right spots, they’ll be a very dominant line.”
Grabovski did not make the trip, so the swift and strapping trio may get an extended audition together.
“Chimmer told me just to skate and not worry about it and he’s going to read off me because he’s such an experienced guy and not to worry about making mistakes,” relates Wilson. “He’s been so great to me the whole year. It’s finally nice to go out and play with those two.
“In practice it is a little difficult keeping up with them because they’re such skaters. My first experience of NHL hockey was last year at [training] camp, they threw me on a line with Chimmer and Beags for my first ever NHL practice and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a fast league because these guys can definitely skate.’ It’s fun to be with them and there is no shortage of hard work, for sure.”
While Washington has gone 3-7-4 over the last month, the Sabres are a bit better over the same span at 4-6-3. Two of Buffalo’s wins during that stretch came at Washington’s expense; the Sabres have also bettered New Jersey and Columbus over the last month.
Buffalo has scored only 26 goals in its last 13 games, with five of those coming in Saturday’s 5-2 romp over Columbus, a victory that thwarted the Blue Jackets’ eight-game winning streak. It was the Sabres’ 50th game of the season, and it was the first in which they scored as many as five goals.
On the season, the Sabres are averaging 1.78 goals per game and 26.4 shots on goal per game.
Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller has stymied the Caps twice in 2013-14, stopping 77 of the 79 shots he has faced against Washington.
“He’s a good goalie and he’s been able to stop it,” says Brouwer. “He’s a guy that plays desperate all the time; he never gives up on plays, which makes him be on the honor roll every night and the highlight of the night every night. We’ve got to make sure we bear down when we get open looks, make sure we hit our shots and are putting the puck in the back of the net and not letting up thinking that we have goals.”
Washington hasn’t gone winless in a season’s series against Buffalo since 2003-04, when the Sabres swept all four games played between the two clubs.