In an 1865 editorial in the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley wrote:
“Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”
Some attribute the phrase, “go west, young man” to this editorial. Whatever, it has been a call to look west as a direction in which progress and growth can be realized. The young men of the Washington Capitals go west twice a year, once to western Canada and once to California. In Week 4, the Caps will make their annual pilgrimage west to the Canadian provinces to take on the Vancouver Canucks, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Calgary Flames, three quite different teams in terms of style and expectations.
This will be the sixth straight season that the Caps made the Vancouver-Edmonton-Calgary tour in October. Only once in five tries did the Caps sweep the trip (2015), but they have not lost all three games in any of those five tours. They have, however, gone 1-2-0 in three of the previous five trips.
Vancouver is first up on this year’s tour, the Caps visiting Rogers Arena on Monday night. In their previous five visits to Vancouver, the Caps are 2-3-0, and they were smacked last year in a 6-2 loss. This year’s Canucks team was given little chance to challenge for a postseason spot, but they have had some success in the early going. Their 5-3-0 record at the end of Week 3 was second in the Pacific Division to the Anaheim Ducks (5-2-1). What makes that record more impressive is that after opening their season with a 5-2 win at home over the Calgary Flames, they went on the road for six games, managing to break even in the process (3-3-0) before returning home last Friday and defeating the Boston Bruins, 2-1 in overtime. On the other hand, both extra time games in which the Canucks have played to date resulted in wins. All three of their regulation losses have come by multi-goal margins.
Vancouver has a weakness that might be welcome to the defense-challenged Caps. Their shots per game (25.1) and shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 each rank 30th in the league through three weeks. It is a team that seems to be playing better than the sum of its team parts early on. Despite occupying second place in the Pacific Division through three weeks, Vancouver ranks third in scoring offense (3.13 goals per game), fifth in scoring defense (3.00 goals per game), third on the power play (22.7 percent), second in penalty killing (83.9 percent), and they have allowed the second highest number of shots per game in the division (32.0). Of note, super-rookie Elias Pettersson, who was concussed when body-slammed by Florida’s Mike Matheson on October 13th, appears more likely to return to action on Wednesday than he does against the Caps on Monday night.
Among the 31 teams in the league, the Edmonton Oilers are the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. They have, at least by the measure of NHLNetwork.com, the best player in the league in Connor McDavid. They have superb complementary talent on paper in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl, and Darnell Nurse. But there the Oilers sit with a 3-3-0 record through three weeks, sixth in the Pacific Division.
Edmonton is a team that reached the postseason once in three tries since McDavid came into the league and has yet to establish itself as a championship contender. Their 2.17 goals per game scoring offense (fifth in the eight-team Pacific Division) so far is beyond disappointing, and it is not being backed up by a strong defense (3.17 goals allowed per game/sixth in the division). Their power play is formidable, leading the division at 27.8 percent, but the Oilers have a tendency to give it all back with their weak penalty kill (77.8 percent, seventh in the division). What the Capitals need to jump on is the Oilers tendency to fall behind early. Five times in six games, Edmonton has allowed the game’s first goal, and they have yet to take a lead into the first intermission in six games through three weeks.
Calgary is almost the poster child for the term, “also ran.” Over the last nine seasons they reached the postseason only twice (winning one playoff series, in 2015). They finished higher than fourth in the division only once in the last six seasons (third in 2014-2015). This season the Flames are fourth in the Pacific Division through three weeks. What is surprising about the Flames is that they, not the Oilers, for example, are the run-and-gun club of the Pacific. Their 3.71 goals per game is tops in scoring offense in the division (fifth in the league after Week 3). On the other hand, their scoring defense (3.29 goals allowed per game) is second-worst. The 7.00 goals per game in combined team and opponent scoring is, by far, most in the division (Vancouver: 6.13 goals per game combined).
What Washington might take advantage of in this game is the fact that the meeting against the Caps on Saturday will be the Flames’ fourth game of the week. There are no back-to-backs for the Flames, but a four-game week is on the high end of a team’s weekly workload. On the other hand, what the Caps might want to avoid is giving Calgary man advantage opportunities. Despite the fact that only Edmonton has played fewer games (six) than the Flames (seven) through three weeks, no team has had more power play chances in the Pacific than Calgary (31), and no team has more power play goals (six).
- John Carlson led the Caps in scoring in Week 3 (2-2-4), is tied for the league lead in goals among defensemen for the season (four) and is second among all defensemen in total scoring (ten points, trailing the 14 points Toronto’s Morgan Rielly posted through three weeks). Of 87 defensemen to have recorded at least ten shots on goal through three weeks of play, Carlson leads all of them in shooting percentage (4-for-18/22.2 percent).
- Brett Connolly showed signs of life in Week 3, notching his first goal of the season and adding a pair of assists. He is now ranked sixth among all Caps skaters in points this season (1-5-6).
- Lars Eller had his highest point total of any week so far with three assists in Week 3. And, after accumulating 11 penalty minutes over the first two weeks, he stayed out of the penalty box in Week 3.
- Dmitry Orlov averaged more than 21 minutes in Week 3 and had five shots on goal, but he did not record a point and was minus-2, the only Capitals defenseman to finish in minus territory. He has only one point (an assist) and is minus-6 (worst among Caps defensemen) through three weeks.
- Andre Burakovsky continues to struggle. He went without a point in Week 3 and was minus-2 while averaging 11 minutes and change per game. He has yet to record a point this season and is minus-6, tied with Orlov for worst among skaters.
- Braden Holtby is having a ragged start to the season. In Week 3 he was 1-0-0, but he had a 5.11 goals against average and a save percentage of just .837. He was pulled in the second game of the week against Florida after allowing four goals on 11 shots in the first period. Of 32 goalies with at least 200 minutes played over the first three weeks, Holtby ranks 29th in goals against average (3.73) and 27th in save percentage (.881).
- Only one team in the league has more players with ten or more points than the Caps. Washington has Evgeny Kuznetsov (12 points), John Carlson (10), and Nicklas Backstrom (10). Toronto has four players in double digits.
- The Caps have more players averaging 1.25 points per game or more than any team in the league (four). In addition to Kuznetsov (1.71), Carlson (1.43), and Backstrom (1.43), Alex Ovechkin is averaging 1.29 points per game.
- The Caps lead the league in home power play conversions, going 10-for-20 (50.0 percent). However, they are looking for their first power play goal on the road (0-for-6). They are one of four teams yet to record one (Vegas, Los Angeles, and Ottawa being the others).
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week…
- The Backstrom Watch continues. Nicklas Backstrom needs two assists to reach 600 helpers for his career
- Two goals for Evgeny Kuznetsov would give him 86 career goals and tie him with Dainius Zubrus and Larry Murphy for 33rd in team history. Three, and he would tie Eric Fehr and Gaetan Duchesne for 31st place
- Assuming he dresses for all three games on the road trip this week, Backstrom will tie Michal Pivonka for sixth place on the franchise list of career games played (825)
- Two points for John Carlson this week will tie him with Murphy for 20th place in all time total scoring for the club (345 points)
- Devante Smith-Pelly needs five points to reach 100 points for his career