Washington’s weeklong trip to California concludes tonight with a game against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center. Tonight’s game is the team’s 13th since the conclusion of the Olympic break, and the Caps are 6-4-2 during the dozen games they’ve played since the break ended. After tonight, only 10 games will remain for Washington.
The Caps have taken on a decidedly different look in the dozen games since the break. They’ve obtained goaltender Jaroslav Halak and forwards Dustin Penner and Chris Brown in trades leading up to the NHL’s March 5 trade deadline.
Washington’s first-round choice in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft was skilled forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, and the Caps finally signed him to a deal and got him to North America; he played in his first NHL game on March 10.
The Capitals also got defenseman Jack Hillen back in the lineup after an absence of about five months with a serious leg injury, and they recently recalled defenseman Patrick Wey from AHL Hershey and he will be in the lineup for the third straight game tonight.
That’s a lot of turnover in a short period of time. The Caps had a stretch of four straight games earlier this month in which they had a player making his debut as a member of the Capitals; Penner, Brown, Halak and Kuznetsov, respectively, did so in successive contests just as Hillen was returning to the lineup for the first time since Oct. 3.
“You’re always looking for chemistry and sparks,” says Caps coach Adam Oates, “and if anything it has given us a little spark. You want to inject new guys into the lineup.
“With Jack coming back, Jack was an important part of our team last year and he missed a long time. So Jack’s foot speed has really helped. Jaro has played well [behind] us and given us a chance every night. Whether it’s timing or not, it sure helps. Having some big bodies; Dustin’s a big guy. We’ve added some size, and we’re maybe a little bit stronger along the walls. The guys have come in and helped.”
Halak had started seven straight games for Washington prior to tonight’s game against the Sharks. He posted a 4-2-1 mark with a 2.13 GAA and a .935 save pct. in those games; he had a 2.17 GAA and a .917 save pct. in 40 games with St. Louis before coming to the Capitals.
Washington has allowed three or fewer goals against in eight straight games, its longest streak of that kind this season. The Caps’ previous best in that regard was a five-game run of allowing three or fewer tallies from Oct. 28-Nov. 7.
“Jaro has definitely given us a chance at points every night,” says Caps forward Eric Fehr. “He’s done a great job for us. We’ve done a better job at getting pucks out of our end and I think our desperation in the second half of games when we have the lead, we’re playing a lot smarter and guys are being more accountable with what they’re doing. I think that’s a big reason why we’re able to keep the goals [against] down and why we’re able to get some wins.”
Playing nine of their last 18 games against bigger, more physical and generally stingier Western Conference teams, the Caps have added some size and snarl of their own, and they’ve added more than a dash of skill and creativity with Kuznetsov.
“I think Penner and Wey add a little bit more size, especially in our back end,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera. “You can be licking your chops a little bit when you see little guys on defense; I know I do. When guys are little, you want to take advantage of it. The little guys don’t play little, but when you see a guy who is 6-3 or 6-4, you think, ‘Okay, this is going to be a little tougher night.’
“You look at [L.A.’s] back end and you know it’s going to be a tough night because all of the guys are 6-3 or 6-4 and they’re big guys. I think that size up front helps along the walls for sure.
“Kuzy is still trying to find his way here. He had that one good game with three assists, but I think he got a good taste in Anaheim of what Western hockey is all about. It’s pretty hard-hitting. He’s learning as he goes. But I think just the size adds a whole new dimension for sure.”
Throughout the season, the Capitals have deployed many “green” players in terms of NHL experience. Eighteen of the 38 players who have worn the Washington sweater this season have had or currently have fewer than 100 games worth of NHL experience.
When they take the ice tonight against the Sharks, the Caps expect to have five of those players – Brown, Kuznetsov, Wey, Braden Holtby and Tom Wilson – in the lineup. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov has surpassed the 100-game plateau for his NHL career just this month, and another sub-100 game youngster (defenseman Connor Carrick) played as recently as last Sunday but will watch from upstairs tonight.
Orlov didn’t play in his first game with Washington this season until Nov. 30, but his 43 games this season are fourth most among all Caps defensemen. He was one of the Capitals’ better skaters in Thursday’s game against the Kings, and he nearly converted a pretty Kuznetsov feed for what would have been the game-winning goal in overtime.
“I would say that maybe the first period in Anaheim,” says Oates of Orlov, “he was maybe a little behind but since then I thought the last five periods he has played very good hockey.”
Brown came from Phoenix in the March 4 swap that sent forward Martin Erat to the Coyotes. Brown debuted with the Caps in Boston on March 6, then went to Hershey where he spent a few games getting acclimated to the center ice position.
Recalled for Thursday’s game against the Kings, Brown acquitted himself well at that position with the Caps.
“I thought he did a good job,” says Oates of Brown. “He’s never played center, we’ve asked him to, he went down to Hershey and played a little bit there, not really too much.
“I thought he played well [Thursday] night. I kind of liked the look of that line and the way they played. I used them more because of the type of team we played. It was a hard game, the building was hot and guys were tired. I started them in our end a couple of times, and for them they should take [some confidence from that]. The coach believes in them.”
Wey has played in five games for the Caps this season, collecting three assists in the process.
“Another guy who has done a very good job,” says Oates of Wey. “He is so young into his career. You don’t want to judge him. We want to simplify and give him as many minutes as he can handle, and I think he has done good.
“His size is appreciated. He skates well; he gaps up well. He is kind of an unassuming guy, but when you watch the video, he is in position which is very important.”
The Caps of March 22 look a lot different from the Caps of Oct. 27 or even Feb. 27.
“I think it has brought a little bit of energy for us,” says Fehr. “All of those guys have been playing great for us. I think we understand what we’re up against here in the second half of the season, and the guys are really excited to play hockey. We’re doing a good job with it so far.”