April 4 vs. New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (34-29-13)
New Jersey Devils (32-28-16)
As they head out to play their final four road games of the 2013-14 season, the Washington Capitals lug along an onerous four-game losing streak. That represents the longest current skid by any team still mathematically alive for a 2014 berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The first stop on the trip is New Jersey, where the Caps face the Devils on Friday night. Washington goes into the game one point ahead of New Jersey in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, but four points behind Columbus. The Blue Jackets are the current occupant of the spot that both the Capitals and Devils covet.
Both Washington and New Jersey have six games remaining. For all intents and purposes, Friday’s game is an elimination playoff game. Although the loser of Friday’s game won’t be mathematically eliminated, it would need to leap over three teams in the standings with just five games remaining.
After returning from a triumphant (2-0-1) California trip in late March, the Caps owned a 3-1 third-period lead over Los Angeles in a March 25 game at Verizon Center, their first game back from the trip. Washington was a period away from sealing its fifth win in six games, but it couldn’t close the deal. The Kings scored three times in the third to take the lead, and the Caps needed Evgeny Kuznetsov’s first NHL goal in the waning seconds to salvage a point in a 5-4 shootout loss.
“It’s simple systems stuff,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera of Washington’s struggles. “It’s mistakes we shouldn’t be making at this time. It’s disappointing for sure. You come off the California road trip and you play three pretty solid games and you feel like you’ve got it on the right track. And then for whatever reason you don’t continue on with it. We’ve just got to regroup again and hopefully you bring out your best from here on in, or you’ll be missing hockey pretty soon before you know it.”
Since losing that third-period lead more than a week ago, Washington has not won and the Capitals have owned the lead for only 98 seconds of the 201 minutes and 19 seconds of hockey they’ve played.
The untimely skid has dropped the Caps to 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings. They may have hit rock bottom with Tuesday’s 5-0 loss to the Dallas Stars at Verizon Center. Both teams went into that game a single point shy of a playoff berth, but only the Stars displayed the hunger you’d expect from a team that close to the playoff chase.
When it’s all said and done, that Tuesday game against Dallas might have truly been the “must win” game.
“We didn’t play for 60 minutes,” says Caps goaltender Jaroslav Halak of the loss to Dallas. “That’s the bottom line. At this time of year, being on the outside and looking in, we shouldn’t be making the mistakes we’re [making] right now. It’s frustrating. We need to put a 60-minute effort together. Friday’s going to be a big game for both of the teams. That’s pretty much the season on the line for us. It’s must-win. I know the guys are going to respond, and hopefully we can get a 60-minute effort together.”
In the games immediately following the Caps’ California trip, old and vexing habits cropped back into Washington’s game. They squandered a two-goal lead in the loss to Los Angeles. They didn’t show up for the first period of a 4-2 setback to the Bruins. They allowed a goal less than two minutes after opening up a 1-0 lead in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Predators. And as Halak noted, they failed to deliver a 60-minute effort against Dallas.
“It’s not only [Tuesday] night,” says Halak. “It’s been going on for a couple of games in a row. Even against L.A, we gave them the points. Having the lead in the third period we have to learn or right now we have to know how to play with the lead. Just close out the games and not give the opposition a chance to come back in games. It happened against L.A. and it happened against Vancouver, even though we beat them. We have to approached every game with that mentality. It’s must-win, every game for us right now.”
From March 6-22, the Capitals allowed three or fewer goals in nine straight games, the team’s longest streak of its kind this season. Since then, they’ve allowed four or more goals in three of their last four games, dropping all four decisions.
One of the major reasons for Washington’s mid-season collapse has been its inability to beat its fellow Metropolitan Division occupants. After downing the New York Rangers at Verizon Center on Dec. 27, the Capitals woke up the next morning in second place in the division, with a six-point lead on their closest pursuer. Since then, Washington has won only one of a dozen games (1-9-2) it has played against Metro opponents, and it has been outscored by a combined total of 41-24 in those contests.
“Well we need to have a better effort and a better game than last night,” says Caps center Nicklas Bacsktrom. “Everyone needs to be accountable and everyone needs to step up and make sure we play a 60-minute game. Otherwise we’re not going to make the playoffs. With that being said, we’ve got to try to put the game behind us and look forward to Friday and make sure we’re ready this time.”
Even if the Caps were to conclude the season with six straight wins, they’d need Columbus to finish no better than 3-2-1 in order to surpass the Blue Jackets. And that doesn’t even take into account what Toronto might do; the Maple Leafs are also in front of Washington.
The Devils have kept a steady stream of points coming in recently, and they’ve managed to pull themselves back up and into vague contention for the final wild card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey is 3-1-3 in its last seven games, and each of the Devils’ next five games comes against teams that are currently outside the playoff picture in their respective conferences.
Like the Capitals, New Jersey has very little – if any – margin for error from here on out.
Although the Devils have struggled to remain viable in the playoff chase this season, they have been a top-five puck possession team in the league in 2013-14. New Jersey is currently running fourth in the NHL in Corsi for in five-on-five situations with the score close, and they are fifth in the circuit in Fenwick for in the same circumstances.
Not surprisingly, the Devils permit the fewest shots per game in the league. They’ve surrendered an average of just 25.5 shots per night, a far cry from the 33.5 per game that the Caps allow. Washington ranks 27th in the NHL in that department.
New Jersey is also stingy when it comes to giving up goals. The Devils have permitted just 2.46 tallies per tilt this season, the eighth best rate in the NHL.
The Devils took the first two meetings of the season between the two teams, coming from behind in the third period to take a 5-4 overtime decision over the Capitals in Washington on Dec. 21 and then eking out a 2-1 victory in New Jersey on Jan. 24. The Caps responded to earn a 3-0 shutout triumph in the District on Feb. 8 behind the shutout netminding of Braden Holtby and defenseman Julien Brouillette’s first NHL goal.
Washington scored three goals against the Devils in the second period of the first game between the two clubs this season. Excluding empty-net goals, they’ve tallied three times in seven periods of play against New Jersey since.
“I expect a very difficult hockey game,” says Caps coach Adam Oates, a former New Jersey assistant coach. “They’re a tough team to play anyway. I expect no difference. It’s going to be a grinding, low-scoring game.”