Aiming For Eleven –
Washington’s four-game homestand continues on Thursday when the Caps host the Detroit Red Wings for the second and final time this season. The Caps will visit Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena for the final time on Feb. 18, a game that will finish off the season’s series between the two old Norris Division rivals. (That’s right; the Caps started their NHL life in the Norris in 1974-75, along with Detroit, Los Angeles, Montreal and Pittsburgh.)
The Red Wings move into a new building in downtown Detroit next season.
To say the Caps have been hot at home of late would be to understate severely. Washington has won 10 straight at Verizon Center, scoring five or more goals in each of the last nine of those games and outscoring the opposition by a 50-12 total. The Caps are the first NHL team in nearly 27 years to net five or more goals in nine straight home games; the 1989-90 Calgary Flames were the last team to achieve that feat.
On Thursday, they face a determined Detroit team desperately trying to keep alive the organization’s remarkable run of 25 straight seasons in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Wings begin a rugged and daunting three-game road trip on Thursday in Washington; Detroit will also visit Columbus and Minnesota, playing three games in four nights on the journey.
The Wings are five points south of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, and they’re just six points shy of second place in the Atlantic Division. Although the Wings have only two wins in their last eight games (2-2-4), they’ve also earned at least a point in nine of their last 11 contests (5-2-4).
“You see a team that’s got their playoff push going,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “They’re finding ways to dig in, and they’re finding ways to get an extra point every night. They’ve got a real good, committed mindset and they’ve got a team with good speed and good structure, as they always do. And right now, they know that they’re in a real war to try to get into a playoff spot.
“They’ve got a legacy and I think everyone on that team wants to continue that legacy of the Wings being in the playoffs for as long as they have. There is a lot of commitment on their end, for sure.”
Rolling Along –
Washington is 24-4-3 in its last 31 games, but the Caps are no strangers to sustained regular season hot spells in the Alex Ovechkin era.
Back in 2007-08, the Caps went 27-11-3 over the season’s second half, earning a playoff berth on the final weekend of the season after Bruce Boudreau took over a flagging 6-14-1 Caps team in late November.
In 2008-09, the Caps went on a 24-7-2 spree from Dec. 4, 2008 through Feb. 18, 2009.
Washington finished its Presidents’ Trophy season of 2009-10 with just four regulation losses (30-4-7) in the season’s second half.
On the heels of an eight-game slide (0-6-2) in December of 2010, the Caps changed their system in midseason and put together a torrid 30-11-9 finishing kick.
In Trotz’s first season behind the Washington bench in 2014-15, the Capitals rolled to a 23-7-6 mark from Dec. 4, 2014 to Feb. 21, 2015.
Last season, the Caps posted an impressive 32-5-3 record over a 40-game stretch from Nov. 21, 2015 to Feb. 22, 2016.
While some of those streaks might have been longer than the team’s current roll, it’s difficult to imagine the Caps being more dominant over those previous sustained sprees.
This year’s model has been dominant at both ends of the ice. Washington has more than doubled up the opposition in its last 31 games, outscoring foes by a combined 121-59. At even strength, the scoring disparity is an even more pronounced 96-42 in those 31 contests.
Washington has scored four or more goals in 20 of those 31 contests, and it has permitted 20 or fewer goals – including eight shutouts – in 20 of the 31. The Caps own a 24-0-1 record when scoring four or more goals this season, and they’re 29-1-5 when permitting two or fewer goals against.
The Caps have allowed just 2.04 goals per game this season, more than a quarter of a goal against better than the second place San Jose Sharks (2.31) in that department. The distance between the Caps and the Sharks on that ledger is greater than the distance between any two of the other teams in consecutive order down the list.
Tight Tilts –
Six straight games between the Capitals and the Red Wings have resulted in the two teams combining for four or fewer goals. Washington has won five of those six, and each team has authored a 1-0 home ice win during that span.
“I don’t know,” says Trotz. “When you think of Detroit, you always think of high scoring and Washington, you think of as pretty high scoring. I don’t know. It’s probably a mutual respect that you’ve got to play real sound defensively against both teams.
“Detroit is still a pretty high scoring team. They’ve got some guys that can really wheel and some young guys that can fly. They’ve got [ex-Cap Mike Green] on the back end who can generate [offense] from the back end, so I don’t know why the scores are down so much. Probably good goaltending.
“I know the one night that [Ovechkin] had  shots, [Wings goalie Petr] Mrazek was pretty darned good and [Braden Holtby] has been really good for us. I think it’s probably the goaltending aspect, and probably both teams really pride themselves on playing a 200-foot game.”
Swift Starters –
The Caps have scored in the first period of six straight games and 16 of their last 18. They’ve hung a crooked number on the opposition in the first 20 minutes of 19 of their 54 games to date this season, and they’ve surrendered more than a goal in the first just three times.
Washington’s start against Carolina on Tuesday was sluggish, and it will be seeking improvement in that area against Detroit.
“I hope we see a better first 10 minutes, because we didn’t like our [first] 10 minutes [against the Hurricanes],” says Trotz. “I think the difference between our team last year and this year is last year we didn’t have a great first period, but we’d win and we’d go, “Hey, it was fine. We won. It’s all good.’
“This year, we won but it wasn’t good. We said, ‘We can be better than that. In the first 10 minutes, we can’t be like that. That’s not us.’ And [the players] said it, not me. They’ve said it. So I like that. I like the fact that they recognize and don’t accept being mediocre.”
In The Nets –
Holtby gets the net on Thursday for Washington. Coming off a 5-0 shutout over Caro lina on Tuesday, Holtby is aiming for his 28
victory of the season. In his last 14 starts, Holtby is 12-0-0 with four shutouts, a 1.78 GAA and a .935 save pct.
Lifetime against the Wings, Holtby is 7-2-0 with a shutout, a 1.75 GAA and a .938 save pct.
For Detroit, Mrazek gets his fourth consecutive start. The Wings have earned at least a point (2-0-1) in each of his three previous starts, and he has posted a shutout, a 2.29 GAA and a .933 save pct. over that stretch.
During his career against the Capitals, Mrazek is 1-2-1 in four starts with a shutout, a 1.54 GAA and a .944 save pct.
All Lined Up –
Here’s how we expect the Capitals and Red Wings to look when they take to the ice in the District on Thursday:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
No Capitals Injuries
14-Nyquist, 40-Zetterberg, 39-Mantha
21-Tatar, 15-Sheahan, 71-Larkin
72-Athanasiou, 43-Helm, 62-Vanek
26-Jurco, 41-Glendening, 8-Abdelkader
35-Howard (sprained MCL)
51-Nielsen (upper body)
55-Kronwall (upper body)
93-Franzen (concussion-like symptoms)