December 23 vs. New Jersey Devils at Prudential 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 2 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (17-14-1)
New Jersey Devils (18-14-1)
Two months ago, the Caps were sitting at 7-0 and were set to head out on their first extended road trip of the season, a two-game Western jaunt to Edmonton and Vancouver. But after winning each of their first seven games of the 2011-12 season, the Caps went on to claim just nine wins in their next 25 games.
There are 50 games remaining in the season, and that sounds like a lot. It probably is. But in the “modern” NHL, teams routinely get “gift” points for losing games in overtime and in the skills competition. This standings largesse is not something that extends just from Black Friday to the conclusion of the holiday season, either. It’s a full force policy, in effect from October to April. Some restrictions do apply: one per customer, per game.
With so many door prizes available during the season, it is becoming more and more difficult for teams to dig themselves out of early season ditches in the NHL standings. It’s easier for NHL clubs to tumble than it is to rise in the standings. Two bad weeks or a bad month will hurt a team far more than two good weeks or a good month will help it.
Since stringing together seven wins to start the season, the Caps have had three modest runs of two consecutive wins, but nothing more. That doesn’t resemble the team that reeled off three straight 100-point seasons in its last three campaigns.
“In the past,” begins Caps center Brooks Laich, “that’s why we finished at the top. That’s why we’ve won our division and we’ve won the [Eastern] Conference and we’ve won the Presidents’ Trophy. It’s because we always shot for at least three seven-game winning streaks in the season.
“One is nice; two is good. But if you want to be the best of the best, you have to have about three seven-game winning streaks. And with that, maybe you get a 10-gamer or an 11-gamer. One year, we had a 14-gamer.”
Washington closed the 2007-08 season with a seven-game winning streak that catapulted it into the playoffs. The Caps had two five-game streaks and a seven-gamer in 2008-09, and they had a five-game streak, two six-game streaks and the aforementioned 14-game streak in 2009-10. Those four streaks accounted for more than half (31 of 54) of the Capitals’ wins that season.
Last season, the Caps had one six-game winning streak and a nine-game streak.
“This year, we’ve got one seven-gamer to open the season,” says Laich. “But since then we haven’t done much; we’ve just been treading water and just trying to stay afloat. We have to start stringing five, six or seven in a row together. Then maybe your drop one, win another four or five or seven and start really making hay.
“The second half of the season, some teams are going to fall off, and some teams are going to push. You really find out what the identity of your hockey club is in the second half.”
Washington is in a stretch in which it plays four of five games on the road. The Caps have won two of their last three away from Verizon Center. Coming off an impressive 4-1 win over the Predators on Tuesday and facing four straight conference foes – New Jersey, Buffalo, the Rangers and Buffalo again – who are clustered close to the Caps in the Eastern Conference standings, there is no time like the present for Washington to put together a string of victories.
“Definitely,” declares Caps left wing Matt Hendricks. “These are important games. We need to take [these games] one step at a time starting with [Friday] and focus on trying to get as many points out of it as we can.”
The Caps have allowed a mere three goals in the last three games, winning two of them. Their four-goal outburst against Nashville ended a string of three straight games in which they had scored but a single goal.
Netminder Michal Neuvirth has started each of Washington’s last three games, stopping 72 of the 75 shots he has faced (.960 save pct.) during that span.
“I thought we did a good job of playing our game and beating them at their game as well,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward of Tuesday’s win over his former team, the Predators. “I thought we did a really good job early of getting some chances. They pushed back a little bit and [Alexander Semin’s] goal really was a big lift to get some spread.
“We’ve been playing a lot smarter and we haven’t really given up too many chances, too many goals. Now we’ve really got to turn those into transition and start to create some more [scoring] opportunities for ourselves.”
New Jersey has won six of its last eight games and the Devils have scored 19 goals in their last five games, even including a 4-1 home-ice setback to the Atlantic Division rival Rangers on Tuesday night.
Heading into Thursday night’s slate of NHL activity, the Devils stood 19th in the NHL in both goals per game and goals against per game. They ranked 27th in the league in power play prowess, but they’re tops overall in penalty killing efficiency.
New Jersey has successfully snuffed 92.6% of the opposition’s power play chances this season, and it has fared even better in that department on the Prudential Center ice sheet.
The Devils are 52-for-54 (96.3%) on the kill at home. The Devils have allowed a grand total of nine power play goals in 33 games this season; just two of those have been scored at home.
In a fun statistical quirk, the Devils have allowed more shorthanded goals this season (10) than they have allowed power play goals this season. New Jersey also leads the NHL in shorthanded goals scored with seven.
When Washington visited New Jersey last on Nov. 11, the Caps skated off with a 3-1 win. The game-winning tally came from Jason Chimera at 2:27 of the third period, and it was scored while the Capitals were shorthanded. The shorthanded strike was Chimera’s first as a Capital and his first since Feb. 2008.