December 3 vs. Ottawa Senators at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Morning Skate Report at 1 p.m., Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m. on capitalsvoice.com, Two-Man Advantage at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com
Ottawa Senators (12-11-2)
Washington Capitals (12-11-1)
Washington will try to salvage something from a three-game homestand on Saturday when the Ottawa Senators visit Verizon Center for the second and final time this season. The Capitals dropped 2-1 decisions to St. Louis and Pittsburgh, respectively, to open the homestand.
The Caps beat the Sens by a 2-1 count when the two clubs met previously this season, back on Oct. 15 in the District. That win was Washington’s fourth in succession at the start of the season, a run that eventually extended to a franchise record seven wins at the start of a season.
Since that swift 7-0 start, the Caps have fallen on some seriously hard times. Washington has dropped four in a row in regulation for the first time in more than four years, since Nov. 10-21, 2007. That five-game skid immediately preceded Bruce Boudreau’s appointment as the Capitals’ head coach. The team’s current 5-11-1 doldrums helped lead to Boudreau’s dismissal earlier in the week.
The Capitals outscored their opponents by a combined 44-28 in their 9-2 start. They’ve been outscored by an aggregate 48-27 in that 5-11-1 stretch since.
Dale Hunter took over the reins from Boudreau earlier this week. The club has shown defensive improvement since Hunter took over, and that area of the team’s game was the one in most need of immediate improvement.
The Caps had surrendered three or more goals in seven straight games for the first time in more than four years before tightening up in those last two contests against the Blues and Penguins.
Hunter has buttoned things down in Washington’s end of the ice, but his system is more predicated on offense, and that offense will come.
“I thought we did a lot of good things,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer of the team’s performance on Thursday against the Penguins. “We got in on the forecheck and created a lot, we just didn’t get enough shots and get enough pucks to the net.”
Washington showed passion, work ethic and physicality against the Penguins, and it also cycled pucks in the attack zone in patches, much more so than it did on Tuesday against the stifling St. Louis team. Next, the Caps need to find a way to use their forechecking and cycling game to funnel more pucks at the net and create more in the way of prime scoring chances.
In addition to the four-game losing streak, the Caps have now dropped three straight in regulation on home ice.
“There is a lot of emotion for us because we’ve got to win,” says Caps center Marcus Johansson. “We haven’t won now in a bunch of games in a row here, so we need a win. I think it gets more and more emotional all the time, and that game [on Thursday against Pittsburgh] just made it even more emotional.”
The Caps have scored a single goal in three straight games for the second time in a matter of weeks; they’ve scored but one goal in six of their last nine games. As the players adjust to Hunter’s style, the goals will come.
“It’s been different,” says Johansson. “I think it’s been a lot to think about. There’s a lot of new stuff going on out there. We’ve got new systems and all that kind of stuff. There are a lot of changes you have to get good at. It’s different, but in the long run I think it’s going to be good.”
Washington enters the game in a three-way tie for ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings, nine points behind the front-running Penguins and just five points ahead of 14th place Carolina.
Ottawa went through a rough patch early in the season and another early in November but has rebounded since. The Senators are 5-2-1 in their last eight games, and they’re a point ahead of the Capitals in the Eastern Conference standings; Ottawa currently occupies the eight spot.
Offense has been Ottawa’s strong suit in the first quarter of the season; as a team, the Senators – along with Washington – are tied for eighth in the league in goals per game at 2.96.
Sens winger Milan Michalek is third in the league with 15 goals. Center Jason Spezza ranks among the NHL’s top 30 in scoring with 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists). Blueliner Erik Karlsson leads all NHL defensemen in scoring with 22 points (one goal, 21 assists).
Ex-Caps defenseman Sergei Gonchar has also experienced a bit of a rebirth under first-year Sens head coach Paul MacLean. After posting 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists) along with a minus-15 in 67 games with Ottawa last season, Gonchar has two goals and 17 points to go along with a plus-3 in 2011-12.
Gonchar broke into the NHL in 1994-95, Hunter’s first season as the Washington captain. Caps assistant coach Jim Johnson was also a Gonchar teammate in the District that season.
At the other end of the ice, the Sens have struggled. Ottawa has allowed an average of 3.4 goals per game, the worst mark in the league. The Senators have allowed 32 or more shots on goal in each of their last four games while the Caps have been limited to less than 20 shots on net in each of their last two contests.