October 23 vs. Atlanta Thrashers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-game: Pre-Cap podcast at 2 p.m. on www.washingtoncaps.com
Atlanta Thrashers (3-3-0)
Washington Capitals (4-3-0)
Fifteen days after opening the 2010-11 season with a 4-2 loss to the Thrashers in Atlanta, the Capitals will host their Southeast Division rivals at Verizon Center on Saturday night.
Washington reeled off four straight wins immediately after that opening night setback, but the Boston Bruins and goaltender Tim Thomas humbled the Capitals twice this week. The B’s outscored the Caps 7-2 in the two games, and Thomas stopped 73 of the 75 shots the Caps fired in his direction.
“Sometimes you watch TV and the chances to score are 18-14 or whatever,’ says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “We had chances that were 10-bell chances. They were chances where you go, ‘Holy smokes, how the heck did he stop that?’ We’ve got to bear down more.
“Those are shots – Mike Knuble had a couple and Brooks Laich had a couple – that have got to be up top. They’ve just got to bear down. We shot them hard and they tried to put them in, but when you’re in tight you’ve got to go upstairs on all goalies in the NHL right now because they’re so quick with their legs. I was pretty amazed actually at how fast Tim was. They’re so quick with their legs that you’ve got to go up.”
The Capitals’ offense was by far the best in the league last season, but it’s been a middling outfit (15th in the league in goals per game) thus far in 2010-11. Only once in the first seven games of the season have the Capitals managed to score more than two goals in regulation time.
One of the hallmarks of the ’09-10 Capitals was the team’s ability to score the game’s first goal and to get the lead in games. Washington scored the game’s first goal in 52 of 82 games last season, and it posted a 38-7-7 record in those contests. The Capitals held a lead at one point or another in a remarkable total of 69 of their 82 games in 2009-10.
This season, the Caps have scored first just twice in five games. And – with the exception of a game-ending overtime goal in Nashville last Saturday night – the Caps have now gone more than a week without leading in a hockey game.
“We used to be in the lead and it’s a different situation [now],” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. “But we have to deal with it. We should find other ways to win games. The last two games we’ve played better than at the beginning [of the season]. We just can’t score. That’s the biggest part we have to work on.
“We still have good chances. I think we just have to wait for the bounces to bounce with us.”
Washington is averaging 31.6 shots on goal per game, just off last year’s average of 32.8. Aside from a moribund power play, one of the biggest differences between the 2009-10 Capitals and this year’s model has been first period results. Last season, the Caps led the league with 92 first-period goals and outscored foes by a combined 92-67 in the game’s first frame.
This season, they’ve been outscored 8-3 in the game’s first 20 minutes.
“Other teams have to do a little more and open up, and that’s why we won games 7-2 and 8-2 last year, because teams have to open up and play,” says Caps winger Jason Chimera, discussing what it’s like to play with a lead. “And when teams open up and play against us, we’re a pretty dangerous hockey club. I think when you get behind then teams can shut down a little more. They can wait for mistakes to happen and they don’t have to press as much.
“I think the lead is so crucial nowadays because you get to play the way you want to play instead of letting the other team trap it up.”
Certainly, a revived power play would inject some life into the Washington attack. The Caps opened the season by going 1-for-16 on the power play. Then they had a run of 3-for-6 which included a couple of game-winning power play strikes in victories over the Islanders and the Predators, respectively.
Since then, the extra-man unit has gone 0-for-8. It is 4-for-30 (15.4%) on the season.
“We have to get better on our special teams,” says Boudreau. “Our power play is sort of in neutral right now, and that’s why we worked on it all day today. I thought we played two not bad games, and we came away with nothing.”
The Capitals came up empty on 11 power play shots on goal in the last two games, but they’ve also given up some prime shorthanded scoring chances. Boudreau has a laundry list of improvements he wants to see on the Washington power play.
“I want goals,” he exclaims. “I want shots, less risk, winning battles and just more determination. The thing when you have the man advantage is if you don’t work harder than the other team it becomes pretty equal. All they have to do is get the puck and shoot it down the ice. You have to get the puck and make a play inside the zone. It’s a lot tougher.”
One of the new looks Boudreau unveiled at Friday’s practice is having forward Matt Hendricks down low on the second power play unit. The rugged forward is without a power play goal in his 67-game NHL career, but Boudreau likes what he might bring to the extra-man unit.
“He’s a physical guy,” says Boudreau of Hendricks. “He blocked Chara’s shot and he’s not going to be afraid to stand in front of the net. I think we needed a little more grit on that second unit and he’s a guy who will do anything to succeed. It’s just more of an experiment to see how he would be.”
Boudreau and his charges believe there’s not much wrong with this team that an early goal or two and a power play goal or two can’t fix.
“You want to get that lead and you want to play,” says Boudreau. “We were really conscious about getting the lead and protecting the lead this year and not letting a 5-1 game become a 6-3 game or 6-4. Right now we’re having trouble getting the five goals. You look at our shot totals and our chances and everything is going up each game, so I’m hoping it’s nearing the end of a little bit of a slump for a lot of guys.”
Jason Chimera scored the Capitals’ only goal in Thursday’s loss and he has been one of the team’s most consistent performers through the season’s first 10 games. Chimera, who was with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, isn’t worried about the Caps’ suddenly dormant attack.
“If I was on other teams, I’d say I’d be worried. But on this team I’m not really worried. These guys can score at the drop of a hat. For whatever reason it’s not working right now, but it’s still only the first 10 games of the season.
“We’ve been coming out [strong] the last couple of games, and we felt we could have got two or three [goals] in the first period. Those things happen. We’ve just got to keep working.”
For all the gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands, the Caps are in the same place they were standings-wise at this point last season.
“We played a more complete game and it’s coming,” says Boudreau of his team’s Thursday effort in Boston. “It’s not where we want it, but I looked up and we had eight points after seven games last year and we have eight points after seven games this year. So it’s not the end of the world.”
After hosting the Caps in its season opener, Atlanta hit the road for four straight. The Thrashers came home even at 2-2 on that trip, but dropped a 4-1 home ice decision to Buffalo on Wednesday.
Atlanta will host Tampa Bay on Friday night, so it will be playing ist second game in as many nights and its third in four nights when it makes the first of its three annual visits to Verizon Center on Saturday.
Thrashers goaltender Ondrej Pavelec lost consciousness early in the season opener against Washington. He was taken off the ice on a stretcher and taken to a nearby hospital that night. Pavelec has not returned to action, and Chris Mason has played every single minute in goal since. Mason has fashioned a 3.16 GAA and a .915 save pct. this season.
Atlanta recalled veteran journeyman Peter Mannino to serve as its back-up in Pavelec’s absence.