March 14 vs. Vancouver Canucks at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Vancouver Canucks (30-28-10)
Washington Capitals (30-27-10)
Heading into the 2013-14 NHL season, the Washington Capitals and the Vancouver Canucks were two of only seven NHL teams that owned streaks of as many as five straight Stanley Cup playoff appearances. But with a month remaining in the regular season, both teams are scuffling and both are on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in. The playoff streaks for both teams are in serious jeopardy as they meet on Friday night at Verizon Center.
Friday’s game against the Canucks starts a two-game homestand for the Capitals; they host Toronto on Sunday afternoon. Immediately after that game against the Maple Leafs, the Caps head out west for a week-long, three-game road trip in which they’ll face three of the best teams the Western Conference has to offer: Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.
“Obviously we’re very concerned,” says Oates, of his team’s position in the standings with 15 games remaining in the regular season. “But the one good thing about hockey is tomorrow is another game. And you can’t get too far ahead or dwell too much on it because you’ve got to play tomorrow.
“It’s a must-win [Friday]. We’re playing a team that they need the points as well, and we’ve got to go out and play a good hockey game. Then you turn the page the next day and you’ve got another one the next afternoon. And the [upcoming] trip is obviously going to be a difficult trip, but we’ve got to get wins.”
The Caps are – along with Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh and San Jose – actually one of only five teams in the league that have made the playoffs for six straight springs. But heading into Thursday night’s slate of NHL activity, Washington is in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings, three points south of the final playoff berth in the conference.
The Caps and Canucks hit the Phone Booth ice on Friday night with virtually identical records; Vancouver has played one more game than Washington and it has one more loss than the Capitals.
Washington hasn’t been helping itself at all of late. The Caps have one win in their last six games (1-4-1), and they’ve failed to put forth a good enough effort to win in each of their last three road games, all of which came against good teams in difficult buildings.
In those last three contests – at Philadelphia, at Boston and at Pittsburgh, respectively – Washington has been outscored by a combined 7-1 and outshot by an aggregate of 76-28 in the first 40 minutes of those games. No team in the NHL can afford to show up only for the third period, especially one whose playoff hopes are dwindling decidedly by the day.
“If you’re not ready for games at this time of year,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera, “you don’t deserve to make the playoffs. This is the time of year where you should be excited to come to the rink. The weather is getting better. You can smell spring in the air, and that’s playoff hockey.
“Guys get paid a lot of money to do what they do. If they’re not ready for games now, then shame on them. It’s a serious business and it’s a business about winning. If you’re not ready to win hockey games, and if you’re not ready for the start of a hockey game, then you’re going to get picked apart; especially against teams like Philly, Boston and Pittsburgh. And especially in their buildings. They’re always ready to go and they’ve all been to the Stanley Cup final recently.
“It’s time to crank it up, not just ‘see what’s going on first.’ You’ve got to crank it up right from the get go or else you are going to be pulling out the golf clubs before you know it.”
Washington is in a familiar situation. The Caps went on a 10-4-2 run to squeak into the playoffs in 2012 and they needed a furious 15-2-2 finish to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring.
But having won just one of their last six, 10 of their last 29 (10-13-6) and having earned a regulation win in fewer than a third (22 of 67) of their games this season, can they reasonably expect to get it done again? They’re also facing a much tougher schedule this time around.
“I think a lot of people do better when they’re called upon in tough situations like this,” says Washington right wing Troy Brouwer. “And for us, a lot of the guys in here relish the opportunity. It’s a tight race here, and there is so much pride in this dressing room and so much determination. We know that we’ve got to pick our game up so we can get into the playoffs.”
“These games are very crucial,” affirms Caps center Jay Beagle. “Every game now down the stretch has got to be a must-win, and that’s the mentality we’ve got to have going into it. Obviously you take it one shift and one period at a time – the old clichés – but we know what needs to be done and it’s just a matter of going out one game at a time and getting the job done.”
Washington announced on Thursday that it has signed defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a two-year contract extension.
“I think he has grown a lot as a player,” says Oates of Orlov. “We‘ve used him in a top four position and he has played a lot of minutes and he has grown as a player. I still think there is a tremendous amount of room for more growth. But congratulations to him.”
“I’m pretty excited to sign the contract,” says Orlov. “I’m happy here and part of this team. I have a dream to win the Stanley Cup.”
The 22-year-old Orlov was a human yo-yo for the first two months of the season, repeatedly going back and forth between AHL Hershey and Washington without getting into a game at the NHL level. At one point, Orlov’s agent requested that the Caps trade his client to a team that would allow him an opportunity to play in the NHL.
Oates finally inserted Orlov into the lineup on Nov. 30 against the Islanders in New York. Except for a two-game suspension from the league last week, Orlov has played all 39 games since, and he has skated at least 20 minutes in 18 of those contests.
“It was a tough time but it’s past,” says Orlov. “Right now I’ve signed and I’m excited and I just need to keep playing and make the playoffs.”
Caps forward Brooks Laich missed Tuesday’s game against the Penguins in Pittsburgh, and he went to see a specialist for the lower body injury that has vexed him for more than a year now. Laich’s availability for each of the last 15 games will be determined on a day-to-day, game-to-game basis. He may or may not participate in practices and morning skates going forward, but his lack of participation will not necessarily preclude him from playing in some games.
“He went and saw a doctor,” says Oates of Laich, “and I think right now we’re going to just monitor it day-by-day and play it by ear, and see, see how he feels and just make decisions daily.
“It’s a lower body pain that some days feels better than others. He’s just trying to collect all the information he can from the doctors. It’s kind of a hard thing to pinpoint for him, and they’re trying. It’s obviously very frustrating for everybody and for him. We just talked this morning and I think the best way to do it is just to go day by day.”
Caps center Mikhail Grabovski (lower body) has been sidelined since Feb. 27, and that Feb. 27 game is the only contest in which he has played since Jan. 24. Grabovski skated with Caps’ strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish prior to Thursday’s practice at Kettler, but he won’t be in Washington’s lineup again until he is able to participate in a practice alongside his teammates.
The Canucks are currently in 10th place in the NHL’s Western Conference and they’re fifth in the Pacific Division. Vancouver is four points shy of the final playoff position out west.
Like the Capitals, the Canucks were in fine shape in the Western Conference race as the calendar was about to turn to 2013, and also like the Capitals, the Canucks have struggled mightily since. At the exact midpoint of the season, Vancouver was 23-11-7. That was good enough for sixth place in the conference standings, and it was eight points clear of the ninth place club in the west at that time.
Since the start of calendar 2014 however, the Canucks are 7-17-3. They’ve won consecutive games only once in those two and a half months, but they’ll be looking to do so again on Friday. Vancouver started a four-game road trip with a 3-2 shootout victory over the Jets in Winnipeg on Wednesday.
With Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin both on the sidelines, the Canucks’ offense packs a lot less punch. Henrik Sedin (41 points), Chris Higgins (36) and Jason Garrison (32) are the only three Canucks with more than 21 points on the season. Washington expects to have 10 players with at least 24 points in the lineup for Friday’s game against the Canucks.
Vancouver is making its first trip to the District since Jan. 14, 2011, a 4-2 Canucks win that pitted a goaltending matchup of Semyon Varlamov for the Caps and Roberto Luongo for the Canucks.