December 20 vs. Nashville Predators at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 5 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Nashville Predators (17-11-4)
Washington Capitals (16-14-1)
In the middle of last month, the Capitals and the Nashville Predators played 55 minutes of scoreless hockey at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The Caps finally broke through to take a 1-0 lead in the game’s 56th minute on a goal from winger Troy Brouwer with 4:46 left. But the Preds rebounded to knot the score just 28 seconds later, Nashville went on top on a Colin Wilson goal with just 25 seconds remaining in regulation. The Predators added an empty netter to send Washington to a 3-1 defeat.
That loss started a three-game road trip in Washington scored but a single goal in three straight games for the first time in nearly eight years. Just over a month has passed since, and the Caps have gone three straight games with exactly a single goal three separate times in the last 33 days.
That means the Caps have scored exactly one goal nine times in the last 16 games, a stretch during which they’ve posted a 6-10 record.
In the wake of a 5-4 loss to the Panthers on Dec. 5 in Florida, Caps coach Dale Hunter re-jiggered his forward line combinations.
The newly cobbled units clicked to the tune of a 5-3 win in Ottawa on Dec. 7 and a 4-2 win over Toronto on Dec. 9, but each of the four goals scored against the Maple Leafs came on the power play. In the three games since, Washington has managed a total of just three even-strength goals, one in each game.
Hunter kept his combinations intact until the latter stages of Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Avalanche in Denver. That degree of patience with line combinations is foreign to most Capitals, who were accustomed to former coach Bruce Boudreau’s penchant for tinkering with his lines even in times of offensive fertility.
Thanks to the netminding of Michal Neuvirth, the team was able to come away with a 1-0 win at Winnipeg on Dec. 15. But the 11th place Capitals must start to generate to generate some offense if they hope to piece together enough wins to start climbing the Eastern Conference standings.
Hunter gave his lines the better part of five games to see what they could achieve together, but he revamped his top two units at Monday at practice.
“You’ve got to stick with the plan,” says Backstrom. “It’s up to you three or five guys on the ice to do something good out there. Whatever the lines are, I think it’s good that we stick together because we get to know exactly where we’re going on the ice, or we should know. I think that’s a positive.
“But now we haven’t been scoring a couple games in a row here. So I think it’s good to switch it up a little bit.”
As much as the players often prefer the stability of having the same linemates from game to game, they also recognize the need for change when a team’s attack is as stagnant as the Capitals’ is right now.
“They players don’t mind it as long as it’s not a complete Chinese fire drill,” says Brouwer of the changes. “If there are one or two guys moved here or there, we know it’s part of the game. We know if somebody’s not going, you’ve got to find a way of making them go, out some hot guys together. It’s expected once in a while.
“Dale’s got to get comfortable with the guys. He’s got to find what makes him comfortable and what he can put out on the ice at certain times. He’s still learning the guys as well as the guys are learning him.”
When goal scorers are in slumps, they generally don’t worry as much about snapping out of it if they are still generating scoring chances. While some of the Caps believe they’re still getting their chances, they also believe they can do better in that regard as well.
“I think we’re doing okay,” says Brouwer. “There are a lot of areas where we need to improve [such as] the neutral zone, making sure our transition is good. Ever since the beginning of the season, we’ve had trouble with turnovers. I think we had 17 in the last game, which is way too many.
“For us, we’ve just got to make sure that we are continuing to get good scoring opportunities, but we’ve got to create more for ourselves, making sure that we’re not playing defense and keeping pucks moving forward, and creating things off the cycle. Everyone knows we can score off the rush here, but we’ve got to start working hard, bringing pucks to the net and scoring ugly goals.”
Washington hosts the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night at Verizon Center. The Preds aren’t the best opponent for an offensively anemic team to go up against; they’ve allowed 2.59 goals per game this season to rank 11th in the league in that department.
Nashville has been involved in 10 straight one-goal games. The Predators are 7-3 in those 10 contests. Washington has played in one-goal games in nearly half (15 of 31) of its games this season, posting a 9-5-1 mark in such contests.
Most recently, the Preds beat the St. Louis Blues 2-1 in a shootout on Saturday night. Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne made 39 saves to earn the win. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Rinne lost the first four games of his NHL career in which he faced 40 or more shots. Since then, he is 9-0-3 in such games. That includes a 3-0-1 mark this season.
Included among those games is the Predators’ aforementioned win over Washington in Nashville on Nov. 15. The Caps pumped 40 shots on Rinne in that contest, but only Brouwer was able to solve the 2010-11 Vezina Trophy finalist.
Nashville hits town with a season-high five-game winning streak during which it has allowed a total of 10 goals. Rinne has been between the pipes for each of those contests.
The Predators were outshot 40-20 in Saturday’s win over the Blues, and they were outshot 40-21 in Thursday’s 4-3 triumph over the Red Wings. In the game against division rival Detroit, Nashville defenseman Shea Weber supplied the game-tying and game-winning goals in the last five minutes of regulation.
According to Elias, Weber is the first NHL defenseman to score game-tying and game-winning goals in final five minutes of regulation in more than 33 years. Detroit’s Reed Larson turned the trick for the Wings on March 11, 1978 in a game against the Colorado Rockies at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium.
Notes: Knuble is slated to play in the 1,000th game of his NHL career on Tuesday, becoming the 267th player in NHL history to achieve that milestone. The 39-year-old winger will be the second-oldest player ever to achieve the feat, trailing only ex-Caps defenseman Grant Ledyard, who was 40 when he clicked into four digits on the games played odometer. Of the 267 players to reach the millennium milestone, Knuble is the sixth to do so while sporting a Washington sweater. Thirty-eight of the 267 players have toiled for the Capitals at some point during their NHL careers.