November 25, 2014

Caps in Advance: Week 5

Washington won two of three games in Week 4, but since the one loss was in the most recent game, that’s what folks will be keyed on heading in to this week’s slate.  For the most part the Caps played well, with the exception of one very important individual: Tomas Vokoun.  The netminder posted a 3.96 GAA and a .837 in two games, a 5-4 OT win over the Anaheim Ducks and 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders, numbers far worse than his season and career averages.

Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and company are still one of the NHL’s most potent offense, meaning that a goaltending lapse won’t hurt them in the short term, but for the squad’s long-term health they need to see some more consistent performance from their starting goalie.  Vokoun will have the chance to get back on track immediately, facing the Pacific Division-leading Dallas Stars, the first team in the NHL to post 10 wins this season.

From the Stars, Washington will then turn to the other end of the spectrum to play a pair against the stagnant New Jersey Devils. The Devils are not to be regarded lightly, but the Caps’ task in the Friday and Saturday games will be “win games you’re supposed to win,” whereas at home against Dallas the challenge will be taking down one of the league’s best offense and stingiest defenses.  Once again, the Caps will be going up against a team they only see once a year, but a look at the league standings with “Dallas Stars” at the top should unquestionably be enough motivation.

Games this week:

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 8th v. DALLAS STARS

7:00pm, Verizon Center
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 9-3-0
Dallas Stars: 10-3-0
Only meeting this season

Last year:
Capitals: 48-23-11, 107 pts, 1st in Southeast, 1st in Eastern Conference
Stars: 42-29-11, 95 points, 5th in Pacific Division, 9th in Western Conference

Last season, only six wins were the difference between the Caps and the Stars, but the former was first place in the Eastern Conference and the latter was last in the loaded Pacific Division and the first team out of the Western Conference playoff picture.

That is to say, the only standings that matter are the ones from this season, which say the Caps and Stars are even.  Last year’s Stars were very good, and this year’s team it outstanding.  Linemates Loui Erikkson and Jamie Benn are lighting the lamp at a solid pace, reclamation Sheldon Souray (formerly of the Hershey Bears) has re-emerged as a top-four NHL defenseman (4 goals, 6 assists, +8, 27 PIM), and Kari Lehtonen has 10 wins in 11 games .

Dallas’s roster is balanced, if unheralded, and so is new head coach Brad Gulutzan.  Both the Caps and Stars have three lines capable of hurting the opponent on the scoreboard, though Gulutzan prefers to keep his fourth line on the bench far more than Bruce Boudreau, who’s usually a proponent of rolling through all four lines.  Washington will catch the Stars in the middle of a four-game road swing, and on one more day of rest than the visitors.  That point may be moot, however, because the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t give Dallas much of a challenge in the Stars’ 5-2 win on Sunday afternoon.

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 11th @ NEW JERSEY DEVILS
7:00pm, Prudential Center
TV: NHLN, CSN-MA
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 12th v. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
7:00pm, Verizon Center
TV: NHLN, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 9-3-0
New Jersey Devils: 6-5-1
First two meetings this season

Last year:
Devils: 38-38-5, 81 points, 4th in Atlantic Division, 11th in Western Conference

While back-to-back games can be a pain, the home-and-home series is an elegant little workaround for teams on the east coast. The Caps and Devils will face off Friday night, take a 10-mile bus trip to Newark Liberty Airport, and then hop an 80-minute flight to Dulles. If things go to plan, both teams will be on the ground in the DMV before midnight, enough time for a good night’s sleep before meeting again on Saturday.

One nice thing about the Friday-Saturday games is the chance to build some animosity between the teams.  Of all of Washington’s old Patrick Division rivalries, the one with New Jersey has perhaps fallen apart the most.  Sure, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond assaulted Marcus Johansson last season, but that was in his second and last game of the season for the Devils, and he’s a part of the Flames franchise now, so it’s as if it never even happened.

New Jersey has been underperforming this season, which is an odd thing to say about a team that only won 9 of its first 33 games last season.  That’s because the same team went through a two-month stretch in early 2011 in which they were 22-3-2 and vaulted themselves from the league cellar to playoff contention, before running out of gas the last month of the season.

That squad is essentially the same as this year’s team, except with one big addition: left-winger Zach Parise, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.  The former 45-goal-scorer has begun to regain his scoring touch, with 5 goals and 3 assists in 12 games, albeit with a -1 rating.  Highly-paid teammate Ilya Kovalchuk (2 goals, 7 assists) is not meeting expectations when it comes to putting the puck in the net (and missed New Jersey’s most recent game), which is a measure of concern for the $100-million dollar man.  New Jersey is 26th in the league in goals scored per game at 2.18, almost two goals per game fewer than the Caps.

In net, the two games will be split between Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg.  Marty, the nominal #1, hasn’t played like it this season.  He’s 1-2-0 with a .872 save percentage and 3.30 GAA, and missed almost a month with an injured right shoulder.  During Brodeur’s absence Hedberg played outstanding, and on the season he has a 5-3-1 record, .920 save percentage and 2.34 GAA.  Because of the schedule, Washington will face both goaltenders, but make no mistake about which is most capable of stealing a game – it’s not the one who’s been the face of the franchise for almost two decades.

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