March 8 vs. Phoenix Coyotes at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast Sportsnet
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Phoenix Coyotes (29-23-11)
Washington Capitals (29-25-10)
It’s been a while since the Phoenix Coyotes visited the nation’s capital, nearly two and a half years. The Coyotes’ last trip to the District was on Nov. 21, 2011 when Bruce Boudreau was still behind the Washington bench. Phoenix returns to D.C. – along with a trio of ex-Capitals – on Saturday for the first game of a quick two-game homestand.
Last Sunday, the Capitals were less than 10 minutes away from finishing off what looked like it would be a home ice regulation win over the Philadelphia Flyers, a win that would have given the Caps a season-high five-game winning streak. But Philly rallied to stun the Caps 5-4 in overtime, and Washington has not tasted victory since.
The Caps have managed just one point in three games since their four-game winning was halted last weekend. In the midst of a stretch in which they’ll play five games in seven nights, with a playoff spot just beyond their grasp, and with only 18 games remaining, Washington cannot sustain its hopes on such a meager diet of standings points.
The Capitals suffered a 6-4 setback to the Flyers in Philly on Wednesday night and a 3-0 whitewashing at the hands of the Bruins in Boston on Thursday. In each of those two contests, the Caps managed a meager total of just eight shots on net in the game’s first 40 minutes.
“The last few games we haven’t had nearly enough shots on net,” said Caps right wing Troy Brouwer after the loss to the Bruins. “I thought our start [Thursday against the Bruins] was a lot better than it was last night against Philly, and [Braden] Holtby was strong in net which gave us an opportunity to win.
“We’ve just got to find ways to get more pucks to the net. The last two games, we’ve had eight shots through two periods and that’s not going to win you very many hockey games. Cut down on our shots against and create more opportunities and find ways to get pucks and bodies to the net.”
Holtby stopped 40 of the 42 shots he faced, and he kept the Caps within striking distance but the Caps couldn’t help him out at the other end of the ice.
Washington’s five-on-five offense has dried up and the Capitals and Bruins played the first penalty-minute free game in Washington’s franchise history, keeping the Caps’ power play unit in dry dock. Caps defenseman Cameron Schilling was whistled for a tripping call at one point early in the second period on Wednesday, but Boston’s Gregory Campbell scored on the delayed penalty call, preventing Schilling from ever needing to serve his sentence.
The Capitals have not scored a five-on-five goal in their last seven-plus periods of play, dating back to defenseman Dmitry Orlov’s tally against the Flyers late in the second period of the aforementioned game last Sunday.
In Saturday’s game against the Coyotes, newly acquired netminder Jaroslav Halak is expected to make his debut in a Capitals’ sweater. After being traded from St. Louis to Buffalo and from Buffalo to Washington in less than a week, Halak joined the Caps in Boston on Thursday, but Caps coach Adam Oates elected to go with Holtby against the Bruins. Halak represented Team Slovakia at the Sochi Olympics and he has had to deal with a grueling itinerary of travel since returning to North America. As such, he was grateful for the night off on Thursday.
“When we came back from Russia we had about three days in St. Louis,” says Halak, “and then on Monday we left for Vancouver; we had a road trip with St. Louis. We were supposed to have games Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and then before the game on Friday, I got the news that I got traded.
“Obviously it wasn’t easy, but it’s part of the business. And then I had to go straight to Buffalo. So it’s been a lot of flying. With Buffalo, [it was the] same thing. We left on Sunday to go on the road, so we’d been on the road in Dallas and Tampa and then when I got traded [to Washington] we were in Tampa.
“It was real helpful that I didn’t get the start [Thursday]. I’m looking forward to playing [Saturday]. Hopefully I can help the guys get some points and try to get them in the playoffs.”
Like the Capitals in the Eastern Conference, the Coyotes go into Saturday’s game just a point shy of the final playoff berth in the Western Conference. And like Washington, Phoenix is 2-2-1 in five games since returning to action after the NHL’s Olympic break.
Washington will need to be mindful of the Coyotes’ power play, which has been on a consistent run of success since the turn of the calendar. Phoenix’s extra-man unit has been successful at least once in 17 of the team’s last 22 games, going 20-for-79 (25.3%) during that span.
Phoenix features ex-Caps left wing Martin Erat, whose last game in his brief tenure in the District was last Sunday against the Flyers. Erat was dealt to the Coyotes along with minor league forward John Mitchell for forward Chris Brown, defenseman Rostislav Klesla and a fourth-round draft pick in 2015. A day later, the Caps flipped Klesla and goaltender Michal Neuvirth to Buffalo for Halak and a third-rounder in 2015.
A three-time 20-goal scorer in the NHL, Erat managed to score only two goals – one of them an empty-netter – in his 62 regular season games as a member of the Capitals. He came to Washington in an April 3 trade with the Nashville Predators that sent prospect Filip Forsberg to the Preds and also brought center Michael Latta to the District.
Brown and Erat will both be facing their former teams for the first time on Saturday.
Former Caps captain Jeff Halpern and ex-Washington pivot Mike Ribeiro are also currently employed by the Coyotes.
Saturday’s game starts a four-game road trip for the Coyotes. They will also travel to Tampa Bay, Florida and finally Boston on their current journey.