December 28 vs. New York Rangers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:30 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.
New York Rangers (22-8-4)
Washington Capitals (17-15-2)
Last Friday, the Caps started off an important stretch of hockey in which they played four straight games against Eastern Conference foes. For a team outside the playoff picture looking in, those four games represented a chance for the Caps to do some standings climbing.
Two games into that stretch, the only climbing the Caps have done is trying to climb their way back into those two games. Washington dug a 3-0 hole for itself on Friday in New Jersey and a 4-0 first-period crevice on Monday night in Buffalo. The Caps were able to storm back to take a point in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Devils, but absorbed a 4-2 loss to the Sabres.
“It’s a little frustrating,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, “especially when you know what you can do out there. We’ve seen a little bit of the power play and stuff, but if you’re going to win hockey games you’ve got to put everything together and make sure you have a good combination of everything. That’s what we’re trying to do, but we’re doing too many mistakes out there.
“It’s going to be tough if we allow three or four goals in the first period and then always try to come back. That’s going to be tough every game. We’ve got to make sure we have better starts and not do those mistakes we do right now.”
Now the Caps will have to contend with the red-hot New York Rangers, winners of five straight games. The Blueshirts have just eight regulation losses – the fewest of any team in the NHL – in 34 games this season. New York makes the second of its two Verizon Center visits this season on Wednesday.
Washington has been unable to gain any traction in the Eastern Conference standings. Since winning each of their first seven games of the season, the Capitals have won just 10 of their last 27 (10-15-2). They’ve skidded down to 11th place in the conference standings, three points behind eighth-place Ottawa and a dozen points in back of the front-running Rangers.
Last Tuesday, the Caps put together one of their most complete performances of the season in a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators. But they were unable to build on the momentum of that contest. The Caps have tightened up a bit defensively since Dale Hunter took over the coaching reins nearly a month ago, but that hasn’t translated into consistency in the standings as of yet.
The Caps are 5-6-1 under Hunter, but they’ve lost four of their last six. Early in the season, the Caps were clicking on virtually all cylinders.
In October, the Caps were 7-2. They scored an average of 3.78 goals per game while allowing an average of 2.56. The power play clicked at a 25.7% rate while the penalty kill struggled a bit at 77.1%.
In November, Washington was 5-8-1. The offensive output slowed to 2.57 goals per game while the goals against ballooned to an unsightly 3.64 tallies per tilt. The penalty kill improved to 83.7%, but the power play slogged along at an anemic 10.6% pace.
With three December games still remaining to be played, the Caps are 5-5-1 thus far in the final month of calendar 2012. They’ve scored 2.64 goals per game this month and have surrendered the exact same number. Boosted by a Dec. 9 game in which they scored four power play goals against Toronto, the Caps’ power play is at 19.4% for the month. The penalty killing corps is at 82.1%.
Washington can’t seem to connect the dots and get all or even most aspects of its game rolling simultaneously. For more than two months now, the Capitals have not even been treading water. They’ve been taking on water. They’ve talked about what needs to be better, but the results are still lacking.
“Words are cheap sometimes,” says Caps center Brooks Laich. “Well done is better than well said. You can talk all you want, but the game is played on the ice. It’s on the individual to prepare. It’s not on the coaching staff, it’s not on anybody else. It’s on the individuals to prepare for the game and be ready for the start of the game. If we’re having slow starts, then that means as individuals, we’re not prepared for the hockey game. It’s as simple as that.
“We’re in a dogfight. People don’t realize it right now, we’re in a dogfight. We’re not playing good hockey and we need to improve right now. There’s no complacency, there’s no thinking there is a magic switch that is going to turn on. It’s going to take work to get out of this, and it’s going to take work and it’s going to take believing in your teammates and working together. That’s the only way it’s going to happen.”
The Rangers have won the last four meetings between the two teams, outscoring Washington by a combined total of 20-4 in the process. In the Capitals’ 37-season NHL history, they’ve never before suffered five straight losses to the Rangers.
The Rangers are in the midst of their third winning streak of at least five games in length this season.
New York has allowed seven goals during the life of its current five-game winning streak and it has surrendered just 16 goals in its last 10 games (7-2-1).
New York has been razing its way up the Eastern Conference standings ladder without much aid from its power play. The Rangers have gone just 2-for-21 (9.5%) with the extra man over their last seven games.
The Rangers are 11-5-2 on the road this season, and Wednesday’s game starts a three-game road trip for the Blueshirts that culminates with Monday’s Winter Classic against the Flyers in Philadelphia.
Notes: The Caps have allowed fewer than 30 shots on goal in each of the last five games, the first time they’ve done so since late last season. During that five-game stretch, the Caps have also recorded fewer than 30 shots on goal of their own per game. The last time the Caps and their opponents each had fewer than 30 shots on net in five consecutive contests was nearly eight years ago, from Feb. 27-March 4, 2004.