November 29, 2014

Caps in Advance: Week 22

Last week in this space I suggested that when it came to last Monday’s NHL trade deadline, for Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee “the best move may be to stand pat…and hope that the recent addition of Mike Green, combined with a hopeful return by Nicklas Backstrom, is all the team needs to head to the postseason.”  That strategy was exactly what McPhee used, making no trades even as the Caps find themselves unable to break out of a six-team logjam fighting for two playoff berths in the Eastern Conference.

The lack of trades was meant as a vote of confidence in the current Washington team, and Dale Hunter’s Caps did little in the three games after the deadline to warrant that confidence.  Against the lowly New York Islanders on Tuesday, Washington needed two late goals from Troy Brouwer plus Alex Ovechkin’s rocket shot in overtime to salvage a win.  All offense was absent in Friday’s embarrassing 5-0 shutout loss to the New Jersey Devils.

Washington is just past the middle of a 15-game stretch against Eastern Conference opponents, in which the Caps are 4-5-0.  It’s been a tale of two teams, with Washington outscoring opponents 13-7 in the four wins and getting outscored 3-18 in the five losses, three of which were shutouts by the opposition.

Three games into a five-game homestand, its longest of the season, Washington is 1-2-0 with one last-minute win and two goal-less losses.  The Caps only have 17 more games in the season, and four of the teams’ last five matches are on the road.  It’s incumbent on the Capitals to make the most of the three home games in Washington this upcoming week if they want to breathe any life in their fading playoff hopes.

TUESDAY, MARCH 6th v. CAROLINA HURRICANES
7:00 pm, Verizon Center
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 32-28-5, 69 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 9th in Eastern Conference
Carolina Hurricanes: 24-27-14, 62 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 14th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 3-2-0

Washington owns the season series to date, but the Carolina Hurricanes have owned the Capital in the teams’ most recent two meetings.  ‘Canes goaltenders Cam Ward and Justin Peters have combined to hold the Caps scoreless for 138:48, dating back to Dmitry Orlov’s first career goal early in the third period of a 2-1 win on January 15.

Both recent Carolina wins, by scores of 3-0 and 5-0, came in Raleigh, and Washington will be desperate to take advantage of similar home cooking Tuesday night.  One thing the Caps will desperate not to do is continue its current 120-minute scoring drought against the only team to blank it twice already this season.

Though the Hurricanes haven’t been making much noise in the standings, captain Eric Staal is acquitting himself quite well on the offensive end of the ice.  Staal is in the midst of an 11-game scoring streak, dating back to February 8.  In that time span, the 27-year-old has recorded seven goals and 13 assists, and with 58 points on the season (19 goals, 39 assists) he holds a lengthy lead on Carolina’s second-leading scorer, Jeff Skinner (17 goals, 18 assists).

THURSDAY, MARCH 8th v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
7:00 pm, Verizon Center
TV: NHL-N, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 32-28-5, 69 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 9th in Eastern Conference
Tampa Bay Lightning: 31-28-6, 68 points, 4th in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 2-1-1

While the Caps have been focusing on (and failing at) making up standings points on the Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets in the Southeast Division, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been stealthily won seven of their past nine games and now sit just one point behind the Caps and two points out of the playoffs.  Once given up for naught, the Bolts are now as good a playoff candidate as any in the mediocre Southeast.

Keying Tampa’s surge has been Steven Stamkos, who leads the NHL with 47 goals and is tied for 1st in points with Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, both who have 80.  With Ovechkin’s disappointing past two seasons, Stamkos may be the only elite goal-scorer left in the league, and will likely be the only player to top 50 goals in 2011-12.

Lightning starting netminder Mathieu Garon (23 wins, 2.85 GAA, .901 Save %) has won his past four decisions, though his two most recent victories, on back-to-back nights, both required overtime.  Stamkos had the OT winner on Saturday night, and a day earlier Ryan Malone scored his 11th of the season to earn the win.  Malone is the fifth-leading goal-scorer for the Lightning, who rely heavily on Stamkos and veterans Martin St. Louis (22 goals, 39 assists) and Vincent Lecavalier (21 goals, 25 assists) for their offense.

SATURDAY, MARCH 10th @ BOSTON BRUINS
1:00 pm, TD Garden
TV: NHL-N, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 32-28-5, 69 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 9th in Eastern Conference
Boston Bruins: 38-22-3, 79 points, 1st in Northeast Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-1-0

Reigning Vezina Trophy-winner Tim Thomas (27 wins, 2.28 GAA, .926 Save %) has never really been a workhorse goalie at the NHL level, but it looks like he’s going to be carrying the load for the Boston Bruins through the remainder of the regular season. Backup Tuukka Rask was forced out of Boston’s Saturday afternoon game with a leg injury, and may be out for an extended period of time.

Boston lost both games it played last weekend, by margins of 3-2 to the Islanders and 4-3 to the Rangers.  The mighty B’s haven’t won a game in regulation since February 25, a span of five games.  That corresponds with a scoreless streak for leading point-scorer Patrice Bergeron (19 goals, 34 assists), who was only on the ice for one goal in Sunday’s loss to the Rangers- Derek Stepan’s eventual game-winner.

Center David Krejci has picked up some of Bergeron’s slack, with five goals and an assist in his past five games.  Superpest Brad Marchand, who’s already set new career highs in goals (22), assists (21), and penalty minutes (79), has only scored once in that time frame.  Trade deadline pickup Mike Mottau, a bottom pairing defenseman for the Islanders, filled the same role in his first game in a Bruins uniform on February 28, skating just 10:49.  Mottau didn’t suit up for either B’s game over the weekend.

SUNDAY, MARCH 11th v. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
5:00 pm, Verizon Center
TV: RDSI, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 32-28-5, 69 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 9th in Eastern Conference
Toronto Maple Leafs: 30-28-7, 67 points, 4th  in Northeast Division, 12th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 2-1-0

As unimpressive as Washington’s recent play has been, that of the Leafs has been far, far worse.  Sitting several spots ahead of the Caps in the Eastern Conference standings as recent as late February, the Leafs have precipitously dropped to near the bottom of the conference.  Toronto sits just three points out of the 8th spot in the East, but three other teams, including Washington, stand in the way.

That volatile relationship to the standings resulted in the NHL’s latest coaching casualty when erstwhile Leafs coach Ron Wilson was fired by GM Brian Burke on March 2, replaced by former Anaheim Ducks bench boss Randy Carlyle (who was replaced earlier this season by Bruce Boudreau just days after the latter was fired by the Caps).  The Leafs responded to the firing/hiring with a 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens the next day, Toronto’s first win in seven games, and first regulation win in 12.

An interesting dynamic to track will be the relationship between Carlyle and Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul, who leads the team with 41 assists and is second to Phil Kessel in goals (25) and points (66).  Carlyle was notably harsh on Lupul when the forward played under the coach in Anaheim, but Lupul’s ongoing career year has certainly proven the 28-year-old to be a late bloomer and worthy of the significant minutes he wasn’t earning with the Ducks.

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