December 15 vs. Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre Time: 8:30 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 2 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (15-13-1)
Winnipeg Jets (14-12-4)
The Capitals departed the District on Wednesday for a two-game road trip out west, a journey that starts with the Caps’ second visit of the season to Winnipeg. The Caps will take on the Southeast Division rival Jets on Thursday at MTS Centre.
Geographically, the Caps are way up north, north of the U.S./Canada border. This is familiar territory for Washington of late; Thursday’s game marks the Capitals’ sixth game in its first 14 road contests of 2011-12 to be played in Canada.
Standings-wise, the Capitals are in very unfamiliar territory. In the wake of Tuesday’s 5-1 pounding at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington woke up to find itself in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings heading into its game against the Jets.
The primary reason for Washington’s abnormally lowly position in the conference standings is its unfortunate penchant for surrendering goals of late. The Capitals have allowed an average of 3.21 goals per game, 25th in the NHL.
“Looking at the standings the morning,” notes Caps center Brooks Laich, “there is only team in the playoff picture right now – and that’s the Toronto Maple Leafs – in either conference that has given up more goals than we have. They’ve given up 95; we’ve given up 94. Some of the other teams are in the 80s and 70s, there’s one even at 59, [which is what] Boston has given up. So that’s where our game has to start [improving]. There is now way around it. From twelfth through sixth, teams are bunched up. We have to find a way to rise above that pack.”
At the rate at which it is currently bleeding goals, Washington would allow 263 goals over the course of a full, 82-game season. The Caps have surrendered more than 263 goals only twice in the last 16 seasons, in 2005-06 (306) and 2006-07 (286). The team finished with 70 points and a lottery pick in the draft in both of those campaigns.
The Caps allowed just 191 goals in 2010-11, the fewest in franchise history. Washington’s average of 2.33 goals against per game last season was the fourth best mark in the league, a figure that gave Laich even more hope for this season.
“I said before the season that I had a goal that I wanted our team to be No. 1 defensively [in the league],” he says, “and we aren’t anywhere close to that. I want us to take pride in the other side of the puck. I want us to be tough to play against. I think you have to be. Maybe I’m wrong, but I certainly think you have to play that way.
“I certainly think that our defensive play can be better. In large part, the personnel is the same. There are a few new guys, but the personnel for the most part is the same.”
Washington is currently one of four Southeast teams sitting south of the playoff picture in the conference standings. The Caps have a game in hand on Winnipeg, which is one point ahead of Washington in the standings.
Washington has surrendered four or more goals in a game 11 times in its first 29 games of 2011-12. During the entire 82-game 2010-11 NHL season, Washington allowed four or more goals just 14 times.
Caps goaltender Tomas Vokoun got off to strong start this season, going 6-1 with a 2.15 GAA and a .932 save pct. in the month of October and reeling off six straight starts in which he allowed two or fewer goals in a game.
Vokoun has slipped precipitously since, posting a 3.22 GAA and an .889 save pct. in his last 14 appearances (13 starts). Since those six straight starts in which he allowed two or fewer goals, Vokoun has had just five starts in his last 14 in which he has done so.
No one is more frustrated over that turn of events than Vokoun himself.
“It’s not good enough,” says the veteran netminder. “It’s disappointing for me. I think I’ve given up as many soft goals in a month here as I’ve given up in three years. I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong and why I’m giving up straight shots, off the side soft goals. It hasn’t been good. It’s nothing to be happy about.
“I just don’t feel comfortable out there. Some games, we win the game, but it’s still a battle. For whatever reason, I don’t have that comfort level I’ve had in past years and it shows. Some of the goals I would put in the terrible column. They’re tough goals on a team that is not exactly most confident right now. It’s disappointing.”
As porous as Washington’s goaltending and defense have been, the Caps are also in a bit of a mini-funk offensively. They’ve managed just one even-strength goal in their last two games, a Jeff Halpern tally in the waning minutes of Tuesday’s lopsided loss to the Flyers.
Winnipeg doused the Caps 4-1 here last month, dismantling Washington in the middle match of a fruitless (0-3) road trip in mid-November.
Playing in their first season in Winnipeg, the Jets have quickly become a lethal home ice team. Winnipeg has won five straight and eight of its last nine on the MTS Centre sheet, and the Jets have allowed just six goals in the life of that five-game home-ice winning streak. The Jets have taken down both Boston and Minnesota – the top two teams in each conference right now – by identical 2-1 scores during their current home winning streak.
When Washington last visited here on Nov. 17, the Jets were in the middle of a three-game homestand sweep of Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia. Winnipeg went 6-for-15 (40%) with the extra man in those four games, but the team’s power play has been missing in action since.
In their last 10 games, the Jets are 3-for-26 (11.5%) with the extra man.
The Jets will be home for the holidays; the Caps’ visit on Thursday is the second date of a six-game homestand that extends to Christmas. That homestand began on Tuesday with a 2-1 shaving of the Wild.