October 31, 2014

Caps in Advance: Week 17

Coming out of the All-Star Game break, the Washington Capitals find themselves in an unlikely place in the standings: 1st in the Southeast Division, and 3rd in the Eastern Conference.

The Caps are only 6-4-1 in the month of January, but a steady decline by the Florida Panthers, who led the Southeast for much of the season, has allowed the Caps to climb into a four-way tie in the Eastern Conference with Florida, the New Jersey Devils, and Toronto Maple Leafs with 55 points.  By virtue of a tiebreaker over Florida, Washington sits atop the Southeast and holds the automatic playoff berth.

Alexander Ovechkin will miss the first two games of the week, on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, while serving the remainder of his suspension for a high hit on Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek on January 22.  In the Capitals’ only game last week, a Tuesday meeting with the Boston Bruins, youthful Mathieu Perreault took over Ovechkin’s goal-scoring mantle with his first career hat trick, but in the long-term Washington will need their captain to stay on the ice as much as possible to contend for a playoff spot.

From well-rested to well-traveled, Washington has two back-to-backs this week, the first a pair of games on the road in Florida, and then two early afternoon games on the weekend, first in Montreal and then at home against the aforementioned Bruins.

Games this week:

TUESDAY, JANUARY 31st @ TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
7:30 pm, Tampa Bay Times Forum
TV: NBC Sports, TSN2

Records:
Washington Capitals: 26-19-3, 55 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
Tampa Bay Lightning: 21-23-4, 46 points, 4th in Southeast Division, 12th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 2-0-0

Barring a miracle, the Lightning are out of the playoff hunt, 9 points back of the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 34 games left in the season and three additional teams to leapfrog.  With four more games against Washington in the second half of the season, Tampa Bay will still play hard under coach Guy Boucher and do their best to take points off the division leaders.

Star forward Steven Stamkos still leads the NHL in goals, with 32, and is the only player in the league on pace to reach the 50-goal plateau.  Increasingly scary on offense as well has been captain Vincent Lecavalier.  In Stamkos’s shadow Lecavalier has become an afterthought, but the 2007 Rocket Richard Award winner has recorded double-digit points in five of his past eight games, and has earned at least one point in 16 of 20 games dating from early December.

Twice Washington has faced Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson in net this season, and twice the Capitals have beat the 42-year-old in one-goal games.  Roloson has ceded the starting gig to Mathieu Garon, but his dominance of Washington in last season’s second-round playoff matchup likely means that the venerable Roloson will again earn the start on the 31st.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 1st @ Florida Panthers
8:00 pm, BankAtlantic Center
TV: CSN-MA+

Records:
Washington Capitals: 26-19-3, 55 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference
Florida Panthers: 22-15-11, 55 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 7th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-1-0

Coming into the 2011-12 season, few would have pointed to Florida as the team battling Washington for the top spot in the Southeast Division, but battling they are.  Defenseman Brian Campbell (3 goals, 32 assists) was the only Panthers representative in Ottawa last week, but partner Jason Garrison (13 goals, 8 assists) and forward Kris Versteeg (19 goals, 24 assists) are also having All-Star caliber seasons.

Former Caps netminder Jose Theodore (14-9-5, 2.50 GAA, .916 Sv%) has reestablished himself as a starting goalie in the NHL, after toiling for one season as backup in Minnesota. However, Theodore injured his knee during a New Year’s Eve game and has only played two games since then, losing a 4-3 game to Colorado in overtime on January 18 and a 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks on January 20.  If Theodore doesn’t go, Scott Clemmensen (6-2-5, 2.72 GAA, .914 Sv%) will tend the nets.

The primary reason Washington was able to overtake the Panthers in the standings is poor performance in the month of January.  Florida is 2-3-4 in 2012, and although the extra points from overtime and shootout losses have kept the Cats from slipping too far down in the playoff race, the team’s lack of regulation wins will put them on the short end of the stick in any tiebreaker at the end of the season.

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 4th @ MONTREAL CANADIENS
2:00 pm, Bell Center
TV: CBC, RDS, CSN-MA

Much like Washington, the Canadiens went into the All-Star Break on an outstanding performance.  Les Habs dominated the league-leading Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night, jumping to a 6-0 lead 25 minutes into the game before settling for a 7-2 win.

Sitting at 47 points, the Canadiens, like the Lightning, would need a big run to overtake their competitors to earn a playoff berth.  On December 17 Montreal GM Pierre Gauthier fired head coach Jacques Martin and promoted assistant Randy Cunneyworth to the bench boss.

Since then the Canadiens have gone 6-10-1, including a 3-0 shutout at the hands of Washington on January 18.  In that game the Caps won despite recording only 16 shots and allowing 31.  Montreal is 6th best in the league in shots allowed per game, at 28.6, and Washington only record a  27th-best 27.3 shots per game.  As of late the Caps have been even worse, registering just 20.7 shots/game.

Goalie Carey Price was the lone non-rookie representing Montreal in the All-Star Game, and while the netminder is on pace for his second best season statistically, he’s only 16th in the NHL in GAA (2.40) and 24th in Save % (.914).  Just more proof that a stellar individual season doesn’t help if the rest of the team isn’t performing up to snuff.

Records:
Washington Capitals: 26-19-3, 55 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference
Montreal Canadiens: 19-21-9, 47 points, 4th in Northeast Division, 11th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-0-0

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 5th v. BOSTON BRUINS
12:30, Verizon Center
TV: NBC Sports

Records:
Washington Capitals: 25-19-3, 53 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
Boston Bruins: 31-14-2, 64 points, 1st in Northeast Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-0-0

Everything that was written about the Boston Bruins in this space a week ago still holds true.  Tim Thomas and Tuuka Rask are still great in net, Tyler Seguin still leads the team in goals (now with 19) and is tied with Patrice Bergeron in points (43), and Zdeno Chara is still the immovable object on defense.

What has undoubtedly changed is the Bruins’ perception of their opponents.  Last week Washington was a floundering team missing its top three players, just hoping to get to the All-Star break without another injury.  This time, the Caps are tops in their division (at least as of press time), will have Ovechkin back, and thoroughly embarrassed the B’s in a 5-3 win last Sunday.

Boston played like the team that was thinking about vacation and Washington played with the hunger that coach Dale Hunter wishes they played with all the time. The Capitals were also highly effective in neutralizing Boston’s strength: physicality.  Boston only recorded 16 hits, to Washington’s 30, and the Caps largely stayed away from board battles, where the Bruins excel.

By packing in the front of the net and relying on takeaways and fast breaks for offense (and staying out of the penalty box, giving Boston on two power plays), Washington forced the Bruins to rely solely on their skill players to win.  The B’s have no shortage of skill, but seemed unprepared to use it, and the game wasn’t even as close as the 5-3 final suggests, as the Capitals’ Karl Alzner scored an own goal through Tomas Vokoun’s legs and Seguin’s second goal was created by a horrendous, unnecessary turnover by John Carlson in the defensive zone.

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