The Washington Capitals, one of the NHL’s putative glamour teams and one the Canadiens must chase for a playoff spot, skate into the Bell Centre on Wednesday, fresh off being shut out for the first time this season, 3-0, at the hands of the Islanders. It was a miserable performance for the Caps, who managed only 17 shots on goal. They had won seven of nine going into this game vs. the Long Island club.
Of course, the seven victories were not all against elite competition. Still, they did win them. They defeated the Hurricanes, Lightning, the injury decimated Penguins, the Flames, Blue Jackets and Sabres. They also beat the Rangers, but lost to the Kings and Sharks in that stretch. If they took the Islanders too lightly, coach Dale Hunter will be urging them not to make the same mistake against Montreal.
Just how much the Caps have rehabilitated their season with the former Nordique and Capital antagonist as coach remains an open question, especially following Tuesdays loss. Washington currently sits in eighth with 50 points at 24-18-2, eight points up on the 12th place Habs. They are 12-9-1 under Hunter, exactly what they were under Boudreau when he was fired in late November.
And, with Hunter in charge, they are no longer an especially exciting team to watch. Don’t expect to see racehorse hockey.
The Washington Post’s Katie Carrera summed up the Caps’ game and their recent play quite well on her blog Tuesday night, saying their lackluster flat showing “provided a reminder that although Washington has won seven of its past 10, it’s been far from a perfect stretch.
“The Capitals were outshot (28-17) for the 12th time in the past 15 games and their combined shot differential in the past four games is minus-51. In addition to the struggle to find the offensive pulse, Washington’s play in its own end lacked polish. The Islanders benefited from plenty of odd-man rushes and created scoring chances off of sloppy turnovers.
“’Just mistakes. And it’s costing us. They’re mistakes, people are getting beat — and the video don’t lie who gets beat or not,’ Hunter said. ‘They’ll know their mistakes and giveaways. Two power-play goals where we didn’t get back to the net…We gave them the goals.’”
On the plus side, Hunter has been a bit more successful than Bruce Boudreau at making the Capitals more defensively responsible. In those seven wins during the 10-game stretch, they’ve surrendered only nine goals. In the three losses, however, they gave up 13. And the fact that they are getting outshot and their offense is so anemic makes you wonder how the skilled thoroughbreds who populate the Caps roster, starting with Alex Ovehckin and Alexander Semin, are feeling about the new system.
“We have to start outshooting some teams,” centre Brooks Laich said. “We have great goaltending, but the law of averages is going to catch up with you. We need to find some rhythm offensively and tilt the ice the other way where it’s a constant attack rather than a constant defend.”
Strangely, Laich — whose two-way play was lauded by observers at the outset of the season — may have had the most trouble adjusting. Since Dec. 13, he has only one goal and three assists in 15 games, and did not register a point in 13 of them.
And Ovechkin just hasn’t been Ovechkin this season with a very modest, for him, 18 goals and 17 assists. That puts hims on pace for a 34-32-66 campaign. He had a team-best four shots against the Islanders, and has 10 goals, eight assists in the 22 games since Hunter took over. He’s even in the plus-minus department for those 22 games, however, and that’s better than the minus-7 he was under Boudreau. He’s playing over two minutes less per game this year than last year, and no longer overstaying his shifts under Hunter.
Two crucial players are missing from Washington’s lineup. Their top defenceman Mike Green will undergo abdominal surgery and miss 4-6 weeks. He’ appeared in only 10 games this season because of various injuries and will be an RFA this summer. His mounting injuries may put the Caps in a tough position when it comes to making a trade deadline move to gain more depth on the blueline, as well as whether to keep Green at all. He has had shoulder, knee, hip and head injuries over the last two seasons, playing in only 12 of the Capitals’ last 72 games dating to Feb. 8, 2011.
An even more interesting saga, at least in the near term, is the concussion suffered by top centre Nicklas Backstrom thanks to the elbow of the newest Hab Rene Bourque while he was still a Flame. Backstrom has missed five games and Caps GM George McPhee says he’s improving. But his absence has forced Marcus Johansson to move up to first line duty with Ovechkin and Semin and Laich to centre the second line.
Bourque has just played his first game back from a five-game suspension and Bourque told the media he believes he’ll have a target on his back in this game. “Obviously I don’t feel good about what I did and I apologized, but I’m sure there will be a few guys probably coming after me,” Bourque said (audio captured by HIO’s Mike Boone in Brossard on Tuesday). “It’s part of the game. It happens to guys all the time. I’m sure I’ll get every check finished on me. You just have to be prepared for it.”
Matt Hendricks could be the guy who Bourque dances with if it comes to that. He leads the Caps with 49 PIMs.
One bright spot for the Caps has been the play of defenceman Dennis Wideman, who was surprisingly (even to him) selected to play in the All-Star Game. He’s taken Green’s role producing points from the blue line, third in team scoring (8g 23a), leading the Caps in average ice time, over 24 minutes a game.
The Caps power play is still pretty dangerous — seventh in the league at 19.3 percent. Ovie leads them there with seven goals and he’s tied with Wideman for PP points, 14.
Their PK, however, has its problems, 24th in the league at 81.3 percent. Laich is their top penalty killing forward but former Hab Jeff Halpern is taking many of the key faceoffs and is winning 59.8 percent of them. Jason Chimera gets some too and he’s even better at 61.5 percent. Young John Carlson and Karl Alzner are the first PK tandem, but you’ll see former Hab Roman Hamrlik on the second group with Wideman. Hamrlik leads the Caps with 84 blocked shots.
Another former Hab, 35-year-old goalie Tomas Vokoun, took the loss last night on the Island, but has become Hunter’s goalie, playing in each of the 10 games during the streak. Michal Neuvirth has only played in parts of two of those games. It’s uncertain who Hunter will tap for Wednesday’s game.
Here’s how the Caps might line up:
Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, Alex Semin
Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera, Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward
Matt Hendricks, Cody Eakin, Jay Beagle
Dennis Wideman, Dmitry Orlov
Tomas Kundraek, Roman Hamrlik
John Carlson, Karl Alzner