December 15, 2019

Caps in Advance: Week 11

The Washington Capitals are simply not a good team.

Up in the air, at the moment, is the time frame encompassed by that statement. Certainly the Caps were not good on Saturday night against Colorado, or over the last week. With a 4-5-0 record since Dale Hunter took over as coach on November 28, Washington hasn’t been particularly good in his tenure. And, an 11th place spot in the Eastern Conference attests to how far the Capitals have slipped relative to their conference rivals.

There has been some good for the Caps as of late. Under Hunter the team is holding opponents to 2.33 goals/game, a number that, if extrapolated across the entire season so far, would be 6th best in the NHL.

Stout defense doesn’t mask the fact that Washington isn’t cutting the mustard on offense. Over the past month or so, the Caps have only scored only one goal in nine of 16 games. Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin both scored last week, which is good, but that gives them 10 and 6 goals on the season, respectively, which is terrible.

Hunter’s squad only has two games this week, a brief respite before a four-game week to close 2011. As the team continues to overhaul its offensive and defensive systems under a new head coach, a bit of personnel change is accompanying them. Rookie Cody Eakin, who had 3 goals and 3 assists in 19 games, was sent back down to Hershey, most likely in expectation of the return of Jay Beagle, who has been out since October 13 with a concussion.

Games this week:

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 20th v. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
7:00pm, Verizon Center
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 16-14-1, 31 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 11th in Eastern Conference
Nashville Predators: 17-11-4, 38 points,  4th in Central Division, 7th in Western Conference
Season Series: 0-1-0

Last month’s loss to Nashville essentially started the decline that led to erstwhile coach Bruce Boudreau’s firing. In a game eerily similar to Thursday’s 1-0 shutout win over Winnipeg, the Caps and Preds played almost the entire game without a goal before Troy Brouwer scored with under five minutes left in the third to give Washington a one-goal lead. However, Nashville responded with the tying score less than 30 seconds later, and then Colin Wilson scored a highlight-reel goal with 24.3 seconds remaining to give the Preds the win (Boudreau sent out six skaters for the ensuing faceoff, which led to Shea Weber’s long-range score 5 seconds later).

The last time these two teams met Nashville relied on goaltender Pekka Rinne, as they always have. Rinne is tops in the league in shots against and saves made. He’s in the middle of the pack amongst NHL goalies in most other stats, but its never a surprise when Rinne puts together a stellar performance. Over his past five games, all wins, Rinne has posted a 1.97 GAA.

Boding well for Washington is the fact that, just like the Caps, Nashville has been unable to pull away from opponents in games. In all five games in Nashville’s current winning streak, the Predators won by just one goal, including one win in overtime and one in the shootout. Amazingly, Nashville hasn’t won a game by a margin of more than one goal since a 4-1 win over Toronto on November 17…two days after the Preds’ 3-1 defeat of the Caps.

One area the Capitals will need to focus on against the Predators will be special teams. Nashville is fifth in the league in power play efficiency, scoring at a 21.3% clip, which in turn is a big reason that two of their top four scorers are d-men Shea Weber (8 goals, 16 assists) and Ryan Suter (5 goals, 16 assists). The Caps successfully held the #3 power play in the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche, scoreless on Saturday night, in part thanks to quality penalty-killing and in part thanks to limiting penalties, committing only two minor penalties the entire evening. That poise will be crucial if Washington wants to have even a fighting chance at home against Nashville.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 23rd @ NEW JERSEY DEVILS
7:00 pm, Prudential Center
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 16-14-1, 31 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 11th in Eastern Conference
New Jersey Devils: 18-13-1, 37 points, 4th in Atlantic Division, 6th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-0-1

New Jersey, which has won six of seven over the past two weeks, has welcomed the return of center Travis Zajac. The former 25-goal scorer had missed the first 30 games of the season with an Achilles injury. Last season Zajac centered a line with Zach Parise, but now that the American winger is excelling on a line with rookie Adam Henrique and Ilya Kovalchuck, the task for head coach Pete Deboer is to figure out how best to utilize Zajac. Saturday night against Montreal, Zajac played on the second line between Mattias Tedenby and David Clarkson.

Parise has been a key to the Devils’ recent success, after a slow start to the season. In his past 11 games Parise has five goals and 11 assists, while averaging over 22 minutes per game, ice time more suitable for defensive stalwarts than even first line centers. Deboer isn’t hesitant about keeping his top players on the ice as much as possible. Three of the Devils’ top five players in terms of ice time are forwards; compare that to the Caps, whose top four ice-time earners are defensemen (three players – defenseman Roman Hamrlik and forwards Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin – are tied for fifth).

When the Caps and Devils met for back-to-back games in early November, each team won on the others’ home ice. Washington took the first game 3-1 and then jumped out to a 2-0 lead back in D.C., before losing 3-2 in a shootout. Goalie Johan Hedberg earned the shootout win, and the man known as “Moose” has supplanted stalwart netminder Martin Brodeur as the Devils’ starter in terms of wins and stats, if not in name. Hedberg is 10-5-1 on the season, with a 2.41 GAA and .913 Save %. Those numbers suggest that Hedberg will earn the start against the Caps, as does the fact that 12 of Hedberg’s 17 appearances this season have taken place on the road.

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