Jan. 31 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre
Time: 7:00 pm
TV: Comcast Sports Network
Radio: 106.7 The Fan and Caps Radio Network
Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at 3 p.m. and John Walton’s one-one-one audio with Adam Oates at 3 p.m., both on washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (1-4-1)
Toronto Maple Leafs (3-3-0)
The start of the 2012-13 season hasn’t gone anywhere near the way the Washington Capitals had hoped it would. Six games into a shortened 48-game campaign, the Caps have collected only three of a dozen possible points, and they’ve authored just one win in those half-dozen contests.
On Thursday in Toronto, the Caps will close out the January portion of their schedule and the team’s current two-game road trip with a match against the Maple Leafs.
The Capitals are still seeking their first road win (0-2-1). They’re 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference standings, and fourth in the Southeast Division. Only the Florida Panthers are currently cushioning the Caps from the basement of both.
Washington captain Alex Ovechkin has one goal and one assist in six games this season, and hasn’t had an even-strength goal in his last nine games, dating back to the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. Ovechkin was once the game’s most dominant player, scoring 50 or more goals in four of his first five seasons in the league. He hasn’t cracked 40 in the two seasons since, but did finish fifth in the league last season with 38.
The Caps’ No. 1 center, Nicklas Backstrom, has three assists in six games thus far in 2012-13. Backstrom is a point-per-game player in his career, a playmaking pivot who makes those who play with him better. Backstrom has struggled noticeably this season; the timing with his normally sublime passes seems a bit off. When asked recently what parts of his game were troubling him, he responded in typically honest fashion, “Everything.”
Including Thursday’s game with the Leafs, five of Washington’s first seven games this season were against teams that missed the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2011-12. The Caps are 1-4-1 in those games, but those foes that looked average on paper at season’s outset have proven to be anything but. The five teams that have defeated Washington have a combined record of 19-5-4 thus far in the young season.
Losing in Ottawa is the difference between being 2-3-1 and 1-4-1 in a season in which all games are four-point games and points are at a premium.
That’s most of the bad news. The good news is that despite their slow start, the Capitals are still just three points shy of a playoff berth, heading into Wednesday night’s slate of NHL activity.
With first-year head coach Adam Oates behind the bench, the Caps are trying to implement a new system without benefit of any preseason games and after an abbreviated training camp. There are actually some positive signs in that regard; the team’s last three games have been decisively better than their first three.
On the first multiple-game road trip of the season, the Caps started Tuesday night’s tilt against in Ottawa in fine fashion, taking a 2-0 first period lead over the Senators. As good as the Caps played in the first, they were even better for most of the second. Ottawa spend most of the middle frame hemmed in its own end, back on its heels.
There’s an old cliché that says “the two-goal lead is the worst lead in hockey.” The two-goal lead offers false security. On the face, it’s safer than a one-goal lead. But once the trailing team gets that one goal, the fickle mistress of momentum often comes along for the ride. And so the two-goal lead, once halved, seems to frequently dissolve into a tie game.
As it did for Washington on Tuesday in Ottawa.
In such situations, your best players and leaders can be pivotal. They can help turn the tide back, steady the ship, help regain that lead. The Caps’ best players haven’t been their best players this season, and Washington wasn’t able to wrest momentum back from the Sens on Tuesday. What looked like an almost sure two points for Washington ended up being no points when Sergei Gonchar scored the game-winner on an Ottawa power play with 2:30 remaining in the third.
“You want to reinforce the good that we did,” said Caps center Mike Ribeiro, “but obviously you don’t want to be happy about games like this. You had a chance to get two points and at the end one, and it slips away from you.
“Going into the third period 2-1 in any building on the road, I think it’s a good thing. But you need to keep pushing forward. Giving them that goal at the end of the period just gave them momentum, gave them belief that they could come back and be able to come back, and that’s what they did.”
Washington dominated the game’s first 38 minutes. But from the time Milan Michalek evened the score at 2-2 early in the third, the Caps didn’t have the three-zone mojo they displayed earlier in the game.
“I don’t want to say that we stopped playing,” said Caps left wing Matt Hendricks of the team’s third-period performance, “because I didn’t think we did. I thought we were still putting pucks in areas where we needed to put them. But they got in on their forecheck and they made it real hard for us.
“When it comes down to it, we just didn’t get pucks out of the zone at opportune times. We had a few bad bounces there, a couple of bad breaks, a couple of letdowns and they’re back in the hockey game.”
Michalek’s goal was Ottawa’s second in a span of less than four minutes, but there was still 17:40 left in the contest at that point, still plenty of time for the Caps to reassert themselves.
It didn’t happen. Ottawa attempted 18 shots to Washington’s nine the rest of the way. Ovechkin had one shot and one attempted shot on net over the game’s final 17:40, it came during a Capitals power play.
Shortly after the tying goal, Ovechkin committed a turnover at his own blueline, then immediately slashed the Sens’ Erik Karlsson, sending the Caps to the penalty kill. That was as noticeable as the Washington captain was in the final frame, putting his team down a man in the crucial moments of a tie game.
“It’s a tough one because when you play a really good hockey game you obviously want the win,” said Oates. “When you have a 2-0 lead, it should be enough in this league. But we’ve got a couple of days to recoup for Thursday. The guys played the right way, that’s the important thing.
“Of course you don’t want that result. But we played good hockey. We had a couple of penalties in the offensive zone, which you don’t want. But I thought all in all we played a very good hockey game. You can’t fault effort and our decisions. It’s a shame to lose.”
The Caps will definitely need to get more from Backstrom and especially Ovechkin on a night in and night out basis if they’re going to start ascending the Eastern Conference standings ladder. To have a combined one goal and four assists of production from your top two forwards in terms of ice time per game is recipe for mediocrity in the NHL. Every other team in the league is getting more from its most-used forwards, and few other teams are spending upwards of $16 million per season (combined) on their top two forwards.
There are plenty of areas for improvement. The Caps need to be much better on special teams. Their goaltending could be better. They’ve made strong strides in playing Oates’ system in the last three games, but now they need to button down those other areas and they need their best players to be their best players.
Climbing the standings ladder in a 48-game season will be more difficult in 2012-13 than it was during the 48-game season of 1994-95; there were no three-point games in those days. The Caps are still within striking distance, but falling too far behind early will present serious problems as the season wears on.
One more bit of potentially good news: Brooks Laich rejoined his Washington teammates in Ottawa last night. The plan is for Laich to skate with the Caps at Thursday’s morning skate at Air Canada Centre. Laich suffered a lower body injury while playing in Switzerland during the lockout and has missed each of Washington’s first six games.
Toronto is coming off a thrilling road win in overtime against Northeast Division rival Buffalo. Leafs right wing Matt Frattin scored the game-winner with just 1.5 seconds left in the extra session – beating Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller high to the short-side – to propel Toronto to victory and send the reeling Sabres to a fourth straight defeat (0-3-1).
The Leafs are the only NHL team that failed to make the playoffs between the NHL’s last two lockouts, in 2004-05 and this season. Just prior to the start of this season, The Leafs fired general manager Brian Burke and replaced him with assistant GM Dave Nonis.
As has been the case for several seasons now, Toronto’s Achilles’ heel is in net. The Leafs were 21st in the NHL in average goals against per game back in 2005-06, and that’s the best they’ve been since. Toronto has fluctuated between 25th and 30th in that category in each of the last six NHL campaigns and it is currently 26th in goals against six games into the 2012-13 season.
Ben Scrivens and James Reimer have split the Toronto netminding chores evenly thus far this season. Reimer has started each of the last two games. The Leafs will be seeking their first consecutive victories of the season when the Caps visit on Thursday night.