December 18, 2014

Caps in Advance: Week 6

It was not a good week for the Washington Capitals.  The team was 1-1-1, barely showing up in a 5-2 loss to Dallas and a 3-2 shootout loss to New Jersey, both at home.  The lone win, a 3-1 defeat over the Devils in Newark, was admittedly a strong performance, but one out of three just isn’t good enough.

Still, there are a few consolations and reasons for hope for the Caps.  Washington’s next three opponents are also coming off bad weeks.  Nashville, Winnipeg, and Toronto were a combined 2-5-2 and looked pretty bad in the process.  Furthermore, the Caps’ best game last week by far was the one on the road, where all three games this week will take place.

Amazingly, none of Washington’s next three opponents have won a home game in their arenas since October.  Granted, Nashville has only had one home game so far this month, a game they lost in overtime, but it will be crucial for the Caps to ensure that their opponents’ lack of home cooking continues…there won’t be many more opportunities like this over the remainder of this season.

Games this week:

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 15th @ NASHVILLE PREDATORS

8:00pm, Bridgestone Arena
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 10-4-1, 21 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
Nashville Predators: 8-5-3, 19 points, 3rd in Central Division, 7th in Western Conference
First meeting this season

Last year:
Capitals: 48-23-11, 107 pts, 1st in Southeast Division, 1st in Eastern Conference
Predators: 44-27-11, 99 points, 2nd in Central Division, 5th in Western Conference

While much has been made of the geographical awkwardness of Washington’s Thursday opponent, the Winnipeg Jets, playing in the Southeast Division, consider that the Western Conference Nashville Predators are geographically closer to Washington than three of the other four teams in the Southeast.  (Fun fact: according to Google Maps, the distance from Washington, DC to Nashville, TN is exactly 666 miles).

The two teams did meet in the preseason, a sloppy game played in Baltimore which the Predators won 2-0 and from which few conclusions may be drawn.  The Preds are mired in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference, the same general area they’ve found themselves in all 12 of their seasons.

Despite consistent mediocrity, Nashville has always had very good goaltending.  Washington’s current starter, Tomas Vokoun, was the main man in the Music City for eight seasons, and his successor, Pekka Rinne, just signed a 7-year, $49-million dollar contract to stay with the Predators for the rest of his career.  Rinne has eight wins this season, three of them shutouts, and has a stellar 2.28 GAA and .929 save percentage.

Outside of the goal crease, Nashville’s top threats are some of its least-heralded.  The Preds’ leading scorer is Craig Smith, with 7 goals and 7 assists in 16 games.  Top defensive pairing Shea Weber and Ryan Suter have been outstanding on both ends of the ice, combining for 5 goals, 13 assists, and a +19 rating while both averaging over 27 minutes a game.

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 17th @ WINNIPEG JETS
8:30pm, MTS Centre
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 10-4-1, 21 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
Winnipeg Jets: 5-9-3, 13 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 14th in Eastern Conference
First meeting this season

Last year:
Jets (as Thrashers): 34-36-12, 80 points, 4th in Southeast Division, 12th in Western Conference

The saga of the Winnipeg Jets is familiar at this point.  Formerly the Atlanta Thrashers, the floundering franchise was purchased by a Winnipeg company and moved up north, quickly reclaiming the mantle of the Jets as if the original team had never left in 1996 (never mind that they still exist, as the Phoenix Coyotes).

This season, hope was that playing in Canada would re-invigorate the squad (also never mind that several of the team’s primary contributors – Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Nik Antropov, Ondrej Pavelec – aren’t Canadian).  After an early-game slump, the Jets traded wins and losses for a few weeks but has lost 5 straight, the last to the league-worst Columbus Blue Jackets by a score of 2-1, coming into this week.

One player who has thrived in the ‘Peg is Alexander Burmistrov, a young center who had seemed poised to take the “enigmatic Russian” crown from Alexander Semin but who has instead put up 4 goals and 6 assists with more defensive responsibility.  Evander Kane is another young forward who has responded well to becoming one of the faces of the franchise, tied for the team lead in goals with 5.

The hardest part for the Caps in this match-up will be getting in the right mindset of playing a division rival after a 1,500 mile road trip.  Last season the Thrashers took the last three games against Washington, including two shutouts by Ondrej Pavelec.  If the Caps take the lowly Jets likely, the result might be the same.

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 19th v. MAPLE LEAFS
7:00pm, Air Canada Centre
TV: CBC, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 10-4-1, 21 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
Toronto Maple Leafs: 10-6-1, 21 points, 1st in Northeast, 3rd in Eastern Conference
First meeting this season

Last year:
Maple Leafs: 37-34-11, 85 points, 4th in Northeast Division, 10th in Western Conference

The Leafs are resurgent this year.  Toronto is third in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Caps and Penguins with 10 wins.  All in all, quite a turnaround from last season’s doldrums.

New acquisition Joffrey Lupul (9 goals, 10 assists, +7, 22 PIM) is on pace for a career year, but the real root of Toronto’s early-season success is Phil Kessel.   The American winger (and imagine how much it sticks in Torontoite’s craws that their savior hails from Madison, WI) has 12 goals, 12 assists, and is a +9 on the year.  Barring injury, there’s no question Kessel will at least register his fourth straight season with 30+ goals, and he’s performing in clutch situations.

Of course, the flip side is that Toronto’s early successes have heralded in a recent swoon.  The Maple Leafs are 1-3-0 in their last four games, scoring 5 goals and allowing 19.  That’s great news for Washington, the 2nd highest scoring team in the league (3.60 g/g).  T.O.’s most recent savior in net, James Reimer, is out with a concussion, meaning Washington will likely face either Jonas Gustavsson (26 wins in 74 NHL games) or Ben Scrivens (2-1-0 this season, his first in the NHL).

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