January 23 vs. Phoenix Coyotes at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. and Two-Man Advantage Pre-Game show at 6:25 p.m. on www.washingtoncaps.com
Phoenix Coyotes (29-17-5)
Washington Capitals (32-12-6)
Two nights after punishing the Penguins in Pittsburgh, the triumphant Capitals come home to host another formidable foe. Washington entertains the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday night at Verizon Center in the lone meeting between the two teams this season.
Thursday’s convincing 6-3 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins extended Washington’s winning streak to five. The Caps have had a pair of six-game winning streaks this season and they’ll seek to match that spree on Saturday night against the Coyotes. With a win over Phoenix, Washington would become the first NHL team this season with three winning streaks of at least six games in length.
“When you have everybody committed to wanting to win, it’s a lot easier,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “We want [the players] when they come to the rink, to be excited about coming to the rink and not thinking, ‘I’ve got a job to do.’ Right now you see them playing again and all laughing on the ice [during practice]. I think it’s so far working.”
Thursday’s win pushed the Caps to 70 points in 50 games. In addition to winning five straight, the Capitals have won eight of their last nine games and they are 19-7 since late November.
“You go in peaks and valleys and right now we’re at a peak,” says Boudreau. “We’re going to have downturns before the season is over; you just hope that it doesn’t happen in the playoffs.”
Over those last 26 games, the Capitals are averaging exactly four goals per game. With an average of 3.74 goals per game on the season and 2.78 goals against, Washington is nearly a goal to the good per game. And the Caps are nearly half a goal better (San Jose is averaging 3.25 goals per game) than the second best offensive team in the league.
“If there’s anything I really like it’s that everybody’s contributing,” says Boudreau. “We’re not relying on Alex [Ovechkin] at 25 minutes a night and [Alexander] Semin at 25 minutes a night. They’ve been kept to 20 and 19 and 16 minutes a game because everybody else is flourishing. So there is no fatigue setting in in what could be a very long season.”
Washington is the only team in the league with as many as 10 10-goal scorers, three 20-goal scorers and five players with six or more power play goals.
“When you’ve got at least three lines that are all capable of scoring – and your third line has all three guys are in double figures in [goals] – then the other team has got to be aware all the time,” observes the Caps’ bench boss. “And the goaltender has to be on all the time. It’s tough. Plus, you can get out of your rhythm because you don’t want to take penalties. Right now our power play is going pretty good. Those are all things the opposition thinks about. We just think about wanting to win.”
Saying the Caps’ power play is “going pretty good” is like saying “water is wet.” Washington’s 25.9% extra-man success rate is the best in the NHL. In their last three games, the Caps have managed a grand total of four shots on goal in seven power play chances, and all four have resulted in a goal.
Washington is 10-for-20 (50%) on the power play in its last seven games, and it is 27-for-93 (29%) in its last 26 games. The Capitals are at 81.4% on the penalty kill in their last 26 games, and they’re 9-for-9 in shorthanded situations in the last two games, while facing both Stanley Cup finalists of the last two seasons.
The Caps have needed that stellar penalty killing effort of late, too. Washington has had just 13 power play chances to 25 shorthanded situations during the life of its current five-game winning streak.
In short, the Caps are really hitting on all cylinders right now. They’ve won as many games in January (eight) as they won in each of the season’s first three months. They’re scoring goals. They’re getting solid defense. They’re getting tremendous goaltending from Jose Theodore, who is 6-1 with a 2.24 GAA and a .936 save pct. this month. And both special teams have been clutch. The Caps have gotten important goals on the power play and key kills on the PK.
“The main thing is to build,” notes veteran Caps center Brendan Morrison. “Recognize the areas that you can get better at, and get better. If you’re showing signs of improvement for one or two games and you’re taking steps back, it’s an issue. But if you can get on these rolls and you can maintain this momentum for a long period of time, it is going to serve you very well come playoff time.
“That’s our goal right now, just to worry about the process. If we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing out there and everyone is buying in, then we think we’re a real good team.”
Phoenix has missed the playoffs for six straight seasons and has not won a postseason series since 1987.
Since moving to the desert at the start of the 1996-97 season, the Coyotes have exceeded the 90-point plateau just once. That was in 2001-02 when they racked up 95 points, one shy of the franchise standard set in 1984-85 when they were still the Winnipeg Jets.
This season’s Desert Dogs have a good chance of erasing some of that dubious recent history. Ex-Caps forward Dave Tippett has revitalized the team in his first season behind the Phoenix bench, and he is a prime candidate for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year.
Tippett has the Coyotes on a pace that would result in the first 100-point campaign in the franchise’s three-decade history. Phoenix has yet to suffer more than two regulation losses in succession this season, and it has displayed better consistency than any Coyotes team of recent memory.
The Coyotes hit the District on the heels of a season-long six-game homestand. Phoenix went 3-2-1 during that stretch that concluded with a 4-2 win over Nashville on Thursday. Ex-Predator Scottie Upshall – the Coyotes’ leading goal scorer this season – notched a natural hat trick against Nashville in that one.
Phoenix’s visit to Washington starts a stretch in which the Desert Dogs must play eight of their next 11 contests on the road. With a 19-8-2 home record, the Coyotes have the third most home wins of any team in the NHL. Phoenix is a more ordinary 10-9-3 on the road this season.
Coyotes captain Shane Doan leads the team in scoring with 34 points, including his three-assist effort on Thursday against the Preds. Only four teams in the circuit have a leading scorer with fewer points. Phoenix does feature three defensemen with 20 or more points and is one of only seven teams in the league that can make that claim. The Coyotes’ lines are structured so that there is at least one double-digit goal scorer on three of the team’s four lines.
Phoenix netminder Ilya Bryzgalov got off to a desert-hot start this season. He had a 1.78 GAA and a .930 save pct. in the season’s first month and he virtually duplicated those figures in December. But Bryzgalov has struggled since the turn of the calendar. He is 4-3 with a rather unsightly 3.90 GAA and an .882 save pct. Brygalov has started 28 of the Coyotes’ last 31 games and could be wearing down a bit.
Bryzgalov is tied for fourth in the NHL with 26 wins. That matches his total from all of last season and is two victories shy of his single-season best of 28 established in 2007-08.
Phoenix is just 2-for-19 (10.5%) on the power play in its last five games.
Notes: Three injured Caps defensemen – Mike Green, Brian Pothier and John Erskine – may all be healthy enough to return to the lineup in Saturday’s game against Phoenix. The Caps reassigned defenseman John Carlson to Hershey of the AHL on Friday. Carlson earned his first NHL point – an assist – in Thursday’s win at Pittsburgh. He is plus-six in his last three NHL games.