September 20, 2014

Caps in Advance: Week 12

One of the nice things about the NHL in late December, as compared to the NFL and NBA, is that the league takes a two-day hiatus on Christmas Eve and Christmas to allow players, coaches, and staff to spend time with their families. No games, practices, or traveling are allowed on December 24th and 25th.

As a consequence, the Washington Capitals play four games in six nights this week, after playing only twice in the previous week. Dale Hunter’s squad has a pair of games against the Buffalo Sabres, with whom the Caps are jockeying for playoff position, as well as two home dates against future “conference” rivals New York Rangers and the foundering Columbus Blue Jackets.

Jason Chimera continues to put together the best offensive season of his career, registering his 12th and 13th goals of the season in the final eight minutes of a 4-3 shootout loss to New Jersey on Friday night. Just 33 games into the season Chimera is already four goals away from his career high of 17, recorded while a member of the Blue Jackets in 2005-06, and his +9 is best among Caps forwards and second best on the team.

Meanwhile, in the crease, Michal Neuvirth earned the past four starts for Washington after replacing Tomas Vokoun in the third period of a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia. In that span Neuvirth posted a 1.59 GAA and .940 Sv%.  With the condensed schedule this week Neuvirth was guaranteed to earn some action, but his strong performance as of late may very well earn him one prime-time start in front of the home crowd at Verizon Center.

Games this week:

MONDAY, DECEMBER 26th @ BUFFALO SABRES
7:00pm, First Niagara Center
TV: RIS, NHLN, CSN-MA
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 30th v. BUFFALO SABRES
7:00pm, Verizon Center
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 17-14-2, 36 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
Buffalo Sabres: 16-15-3, 35 points, 4th in Northeast Division, 11th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 0-1-0

The last time the Caps played the Sabres was the last time Bruce Boudreau stood behind the Washington bench. After a 5-1 drubbing in Buffalo, against a team comprised with a significant number of AHL call-ups, the Caps parted ways with Boudreau, saying it was clear that he had lost the attention of his players.

Now Hunter will have to muster his team’s best effort against a Sabres squad that is still missing several regulars, including stalwart defenseman Tyler Myers and power forward Brad Boyes. Working in the Caps’ favor is the poor play this season of goalie Ryan Miller, whose 3.11 GAA is over a half-goal worse than his career average. Because the Capitals and Sabres play on nonconsecutive nights, however, Washington may end up facing backup goalie Jhonas Enroth both times this week. Enroth (2.54 GAA, .918 Sv%) is 8-7-1 in his second NHL season and is starting to give Miller a run for the starting job.

Washington’s man-to-man defensive system will be tasked with defending against an offense that displays a great deal of balance. Buffalo possesses two of the top fifteen scorers in the NHL, Jason Pominville (11 goals, 26 assists) and Thomas Vanek (17 goals, 19 assists), but the duo only combined for one goal and one assist the first time these teams met. Rookie Luke Adam scored twice, while Jochen Hecht returned from injury to score his first goal of the season and rookie call-up Zack Kassian scored his first career goal in his second career game.

For all the talk of the on-ice product, most of the drama surrounding the Sabres right now surrounds the front office. Buffalo has lost three straight, a schneid that begun with a 8-3 loss to the Penguins on the 17th of December and continued with a 4-1 loss to Ottawa and 3-2 loss to Toronto. While head coach Lindy Ruff’s job probably isn’t in question, there’s enough stress and enough time to mull over it – the Sabres will have three days off prior to Monday’s game at home – that distractions may mount.

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 28th v. NEW YORK RANGERS
7:30pm, Verizon Center
TV: Versus, TSN2, RIS

Records:
Washington Capitals: 17-14-2, 36 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
New York Rangers: 21-8-4, 46 points, 1st in Atlantic Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 0-1-0

Splitting up Washington’s home-and-home with Buffalo is a mid-week game against the New York Rangers, who also soundly drubbed the Caps 6-3 in the second-to-last game of Boudreau’s tenure. This time, the Rangers will have spent several weeks under the scrutiny of HBO’s cameras for the second season of 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic, an experience with which Washington can relate.

Against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals will need all the help they can get against the Rags and star goalie Henrik Lundqvist, whose respectable 14 wins belie another all-star statistical season. King Henrik has the 7th best GAA (2.03) and T-4th best Sv% (.934) in the NHL.

New York, which is still in the single digits in losses, has benefited from the goal-scoring of Marian Gaborik (21 goals) to lead the league’s 9th highest scoring offense (2.97 goals/game), just one spot above the Caps (2.94 goals/game).  On the blueline, Michael Del Zotto is also trending in the 20s: a +22 in the plus/minus category, to be specific. Early in the season Dan Girardi, who is tops in the NHL in ice time, was earning all the accolades among Rangers d-men, but Del Zotto’s contribution on both ends of the ice – he has 4 goals and 15 assists – allow head coach John Tortorella to effectively roll through three shut-down defensemen without losing anything on offense.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 31st @ COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

7:00pm, Nationwide Arena
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 17-14-2, 36 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
Columbus Blue Jackets: 9-21-4, 22 points, 5th in Central Division, 15th in Western Conference
Only meeting this season

As far as moribund franchises go, the Blue Jackets are the worst this season. Columbus still only has nine wins on the season, and sole possession of last place in the NHL to boot.

Last Thursday against the Predators, whom the Caps beat 4-1, Columbus took an equal lead by the end of the first period on the strength of a hat trick by Jeff Carter. Somehow the Jackets still found a way to lose, allowing Nashville to score the game’s last four goals, including a breakaway marker by Martin Erat with 8.4 seconds left in the game to give the Preds a 6-5 win.

Carter’s trick gave him 10 goals on the season, a disappointing pace for a player who scored 46, 33, and 36 goals in the past three seasons. Carter was traded to Columbus in July and has had trouble acclimating to his new surroundings, an excuse not available to Rick Nash (10 goals 14 assists, -18), the face of the Jackets franchise, who is on pace for an eight-season low in goals.

Truth be told, there’s not much going well for the Blue Jackets. With the utter failure of Steve Mason (4-14-1, 3.52 GAA, .880 Sv%) in net, backup Curtis Sanford (5-6-3, 2.66 GAA, .908 Sv%) has seized the opportunity to take the starting job, but neither are stellar options and the Capitals should feast on Columbus’ weak defense. Whether they do is a different story.

Comments

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