July 14, 2020

Caps in Advance: Week 20

There may be no more stressful time for an NHL player during the regular season than the lead in to the trade deadline, particularly when your team’s owner has already gone on the record to say that moves will be made.

Washington’s four games this week are its last before Monday afternoon’s deadline, and the next quarter of games will go a long way toward determining general manager George McPhee’s stance and activity.  Two of the Caps’ upcoming opponents, the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, occupy the final two spots in the Eastern Conference’s playoff field.

Luckily for the Caps, Dale Hunter’s squad has performed exceedingly well against its upcoming slate of foes. Washington is a combined 9-2-0 against Ottawa, Toronto, the Carolina Hurricanes, and Montreal Canadiens, outscoring the four foes by a margin of almost 3 to 2.

In personnel news, extremely encouraging is the return of defenseman Mike Green, who skated 18 shifts for almost 15 minutes in Saturday night’s 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, his first game action in over a month and only the second full game he completed since late October.  Green’s fellow Young Gun Nicklas Backstrom remains out indefinitely with a concussion, but the return of the high-scoring blueliner adds even more punch to a defensive corps that already boasts two of the top 20 goal scorers in the NHL: Dennis Wideman (T-4th, 10 goals) and John Carlson (T-17th, 7 goals).

Games this week:

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 20th @ CAROLINA HURRICANES
7:30 pm, RBC Center
TV: NBC Sports, TSN2, RDSI, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 29-24-5, 63 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
Carolina Hurricanes: 22-26-11 , 55 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 15th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 3-1-0

Even though the Hurricanes are only nine points out of the final playoff spot in the East, they are by no means contenders.  Instead, Carolina inhabits the cold, dark basement of the Eastern Conference standings.  Despite the team’s undisputed position as “sellers,” general manager Jim Rutherford has chosen to view this season as an aberration rather than a sign of decline, and recently inked pending free agent defenseman Tim Gleason to a five-year contract extension.

Carolina’s disappointing season may have gotten even more depressing with an apparent injury to starting goaltender Cam Ward, who left Saturday night’s 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders with a lower body injury.  Ward has earned all but one of Carolina’s wins this season, and while he and his backup Justin Peters have identical .911 save percentages, Peters’ 3.65 GAA is almost a goal worse than the 2.81 GAA owned by his starter.

The injury bug has also caught another key Hurricanes player, gritty forward Tuomo Ruutu, who’s expected to miss several weeks with an upper body injury.  Ruutu leads Carolina with 17 goals, and without him the Hurricanes lineup only features five players with double-digit goals and only three players with thirty or more points.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 22nd @ OTTAWA SENATORS
7:00 pm, Scotiabank Place
TV: TSN, RDS, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 29-24-5, 63 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
Ottawa Senators: 30-22-8, 68 points, 2nd in Northeast Division, 7th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 3-0-0

The Senators sit five points ahead of Washington in the standings, although the Capitals have two games in hand on the surprising Sens.  Leading Ottawa on offense is center Jason Spezza (25 goals, 38 assists), who sits in 5th place in the NHL scoring race.

Meanwhile, defenseman Erik Karlsson paces all defensemen with 53 points (10 goals, 43 assists) and shots, with 192.  Karlsson is on a scoring streak with five points in his past three games, including the first strike (and eventual game-winner) in a 4-0 undressing of the Lightning on Tuesday night.

Currently the Senators are on a two-game winning streak, but prior to that they had lost eight of nine games, including four in the midst of a five-game home stand.  Ottawa has been surprisingly meek within the friendly confines of Scotiabank Place, and actually have a better on the road (15-10-6, 1.16 points/game) than they do at home (15-12-2, 1.10 pts/game), a trend the Caps hope to continue in order to earn the season sweep.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 24th v. MONTREAL CANADIENS
7:00 pm, Verizon Center
TV: RDS, TSN, NHL-N, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 29-24-5, 63 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
Montreal Canadiens: 24-26-10, 58 points, 4th in Northeast Division, 13th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 2-0-0

Things are not going well for the Canadiens in two games so far this season against the Capitals.  How bad?  In 120 minutes, all at home, the Canadiens have yet to score a goal against Washington.

Both Washington netminders have stifled the Habs: Michal Neuvirth earned the shutout win on January 18, and Tomas Vokoun mirrored his compatriot with the same result on February 4.  All this despite Montreal drastically outshooting the Caps, to a tune of a combined 61 to 39.

Halting the Canadiens offense is largely a matter of shutting down its top two scoring threats, Max Pacioretty (25 goals, 21 assists) and Erik Cole (22 goals, 22 assists), who skate together on the team’s top line.  Pacioretty in particular has been one of the hottest skaters in the NHL in the current calendar year, potting 14 goals in 21 games since January 1st.  Meanwhile, much maligned teammate Scott Gomez scored his first goal in over a calendar year on February 9th; it was the first time Gomez found the back of the net since February 5, 2011, a span in which the center played 53 regular season games.

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 25th @ TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
7:00 pm, Air Canada Centre
TV: CBC, NHL-N, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 29-24-5, 63 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
Toronto Maple Leafs: 29-24-6, 64 points, 3rd in Northeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-1-0

Toronto is the team most directly in Washington’s sights, with just one more point than the Caps having played one more game than Washington (the Jets also have 64 points, but they don’t face the Caps until mid-March, and Hunter’s squad has no right looking that far ahead on the schedule).  Early-scoring surprises Phil Kessel (30 goals, 33 assists) and Joffrey Lupul (23 goals, 38 assists) have shown no sign of slowing down, although their teammates certainly have. Mikhail Grabovski, third in the team with 18 goals, hasn’t hit the back of the net since a two-goal outburst since January 31st, which he’s attributed largely to a bad batch of sticks.

During the Leafs’ last six games (in which they have gone 1-5-0) the team has been outscored 25 to 10, and the sole win was in the shootout, meaning the last time Toronto outscored a team during regulation was in a 6-3 win over Edmonton on February 6.  Both Toronto goalies, James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson, have shown a serious inability to stop the puck this season.  As a team Toronto is 27th in the NHL in goals allowed, with 3.00/game, and neither goaltender ranks higher than 35th in any significant statistical category for goaltenders.

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