September 30, 2020

Caps in Advance: Week 10

The Dale Hunter era has started to start to see dividends in Washington, D.C., after a slow start to the new coach’s reign. The Capitals won two straight last week, and three of four over the past ten days. Even more importantly, after averaging 1.66 goals/game in Hunter’s first three games as coach, Washington is averaging 4.33 goals/game in the subsequent three games.

Pay no attention to the recent histories of the six teams Hunter has helmed the bench against, he has unquestionably faced some of the class of the league. This week the Caps start again with one of the league’s top team, before visiting a  middle-of-the-pack team midweek, and ending up with one of the dregs of the league over the weekend (Of course, it bears mention that even in light of recent successes, Washington is also squarely middle-of-the-pack).

One thing the Caps have going in their favor is a long break, giving them time to heal and to further practice playing under a new system. The team last played on Friday, and doesn’t take the ice again until Tuesday, giving Washington’s players a rare three full days off.

Will the Caps play better coming off a break? Will any injured players – Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle – reappear with a little extra time to recover? Probably not, but it can’t hurt to ask.

Whatever happens over the weekend, there’s no question that by Tuesday night, Caps fans will be chomping at the bit to see their team in action against a future conference rival and top team in the East, a current conference rival, and a faraway team in whose (lack of) success Washington has a vested interest.

Games this week:

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 13th v. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
7:00pm, Verizon Center
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 15-12-1, 31 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
Philadelphia Flyers: 18-7-3, 39 points, 1st in Atlantic Division, 1st in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-0-0

The first time these two teams met, Washington scored five straight goals sandwiched between a pair of Flyers strikes to take a relatively 5-2 win out of Philadelphia. Alex Ovechkin had a pair of goals, one on the power play, while Claude Giroux opened the scoring for Philly.

While Washington’s trajectory has wobbled since that point, things have only been trending up for Philadelphia. Giroux (16 goals, 23 assists) has been the surprise leader of the Black-and-Orange’s success, leading the NHL in points and sitting atop most lists for MVP candidates through the first third of the season. When Philly traded All-Stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter on the same day this past June, the wisdom was that Giroux would take advantage of the opportunity to play a larger role in his team’s offense, but no one anticipated the extent to which he would blossom.

However, Giroux left Philadelphia’s game on Saturday after teammate Wayne Simmonds accidentally kneed him in the head. Giroux has passed initial concussion screening tests, but it would not be surprising if the star forward missed Tuesday’s game.

Similarly impressive on the offensive end is Kimmo Timonen, the defensive stalwart who is on pace for a career low in goals (he’s yet to score) but still on pace to set a career high in points, courtesy of 20 assists in 28 games. Timonen also averages over 22 minutes of ice time a game, a stat that will only increase now that the Flyers have acknowledged that team captain Chris Pronger is out indefinitely with “concussion-like symptoms” stemming from a high stick to the face Pronger suffered in late October. Also maintaining a high level of play even with extra responsibility foisted on his shoulders is eight-year pro Braydon Coburn, who was previously the Flyers’ defensive leader prior to Pronger’s arrival two seasons ago.

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 15th @ WINNIPEG JETS
8:30 pm, MTS Centre
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 15-12-1, 31 points,  2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
Winnipeg Jets: 13-12-4, 30 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-1-0

Speaking of trajectories, the Jets had been on an upward one in the month of December. Winnipeg won four straight, all at home, to challenge Washington for second place in the Southeast Division. In those four games, the Jets only allowed five goals against, but that all fell apart in a 7-1 road loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night.

Luckily for Winnipeg, this week marks the start of another lengthy home stand. The Jets are a dominating 10-3-0 within the friendly confines of the MTS Centre, including a 4-1 dismantling of Washington in mid-November. Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien have continued to spearhead Winnipeg’s offense, and rounding into form to join them is Blake Wheeler (1 goal, 7 assists in his past seven games) and Bryan Little (4 goals, 4 assists in his past six games).

Prior to his terrible game against Detroit, Jets starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec strung together three fantastic games in early December, blanking the Phoenix Coyotes and then holding the Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils to one and two goals, respectively. Pavelec has been golden against the Caps the past two seasons, with a 3-1-1 record and 1.51 GAA.

With the Florida Panthers starting to run away with the Southeast Division lead, these intra-divisional games between the Caps and Jets are beginning to take on additional importance. The last time Washington played in Winnipeg, it was clear the visiting team was unable to muster the necessary intensity for a division match-up. Hopefully Hunter will be able to encourage his players to pick up the pace this time, or else the Caps will find themselves behind the eight-ball in the Southeast.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 17th @ COLORADO AVALANCHE
9:00pm, Pepsi Center
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 15-12-1, 31 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
Colorado Avalanche: 13-16-1, 27 points, 5th in Northwest Division, 13th in Western Conference
Only meeting this season

For a game between two teams in two different conferences over 1,600 miles apart (as opposed to two teams in the same division over 1,500 miles apart…Winnipeg), playing for the only time this season, the Saturday night matchup between the Caps and Avalanches has a surprisingly healthy number of storylines.

First and foremost is Semyon Varlamov. Washington GM George McPhee sent the former first round pick to the Avs for Colorado’s first round pick in the 2012 Entry Draft, as well as a second round pick in either 2012 or 2013. The move was meant to clear the way for Michal Neuvirth to become the team’s starter, though the unexpected availability of Tomas Vokoun changed those plans a bit.

Varlamov started the season with style and aplomb-winning five of eight games in the month of October, including three victories in the shootout-and made McPhee look a bit foolish. Since the calendar turned to November, however, Varlamov fell to earth when he lost seven straight, and now holds a 9-12-1 record with a 3.07 GAA and .898 Save %. Varly now ranks 35th and 34th in the league, respectively, in those categories, and his travails have reflected back on his team, which dropped from first to last in the Northwest. A prolonged run is certainly possible for Varlamov and his young teammates, who include stars-in-the-making Matt Duchene (10 goals, 10 assists) and Ryan O’Reilly (6 goals, 15 assists), both 20 years old, as well as 19-year-old Gabriel Landeskog.

The other storyline, less heralded, is the visit by Hunter to the franchise he began and ended his career with. A second-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques in the 1979 draft, Hunter broke into the NHL in the 1980-81 season as a 20-year-old and played seven seasons, racking up 140 goals, 458 points, and 1,545 penalty minutes in 523 games before getting dealt to Washington in the summer of 1987.

Hunter also ended his career with the franchise in 1999 when he was dealt to the Avalanche at the trade deadline. McPhee, then in his second season as Washington’s GM, moved several key players from the previous season’s trip to the Cup finals when it became clear the Caps were in for a lengthy rebuilding effort. According to the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell:

McPhee offered to let Hunter stay and play every game or be traded wherever he thought he had the best chance to win the Cup. Instead, Hunter asked McPhee where he should be traded.

“Colorado,” McPhee said.

“[Then] that’s where I want to go,” Hunter told McPhee, according to the GM.

At that moment, McPhee made one of the rarest promises you’ll ever hear in sports. The NHL trade deadline was 3 p.m. “At 2:59, if I can’t get anything for you,” McPhee said he told Hunter, “I’ll give you away for nothing.”

Even though Hunter only played 12 regular season and 19 playoff games with the Avalanche before retiring at the end of the season, he very well may still harbor positive emotions toward the club and its history.

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