Three wins in three games in Week 11. That will be a hard thing to match for the Washington Capitals in Week 12. Add to that the fact that the Caps have to host a rivalry game against the Pittsburgh Penguins to open the week, get a rematch against a Buffalo Sabres team they beat in a shootout to end Week 11, and then they go on the road to face the Ottawa Senators the next night to close the week, and it will be a challenge to extend their five-game winning streak.
Each of the three teams that the Caps face this week pose their own challenge. A team on the rise, a team with revenge on its mind, and one that has suddenly turned stingy on home ice.
Pittsburgh Penguins (15-11-6 entering the week). No game between these rivals is “just another game,” whether it is in the spring or on a cold winter weeknight in the holiday season. However, the Caps will be facing a team that has had some uncommon struggles this season. When the Penguins face the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night before visiting Washington, they will be trying to do something they have not done over their previous 23 games dating back to late October – win a third consecutive game.
Since Pittsburgh won four straight in late October, the Penguins are an uncharacteristic 9-9-4. They have been better of late, with a 7-3-1 record over their last 11 games, but they remain a team that has struggled away from home. Their 6-5-4 road record enters Week 12 as the 19th-ranked road record in the league, and they are just 2-5-3 in their last ten road games, one of the two wins coming in regulation and the other in shootout. Three times in those 11 games the Pens allowed six goals, five times they allowed two or fewer. Defense has been an all or nothing adventure on the road, but they did welcome back goalie Matt Murray, who returned to the lineup on Saturday (38 saves in a 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings) after missing 13 games with a lower body injury.
Buffalo Sabres (19-9-5). The Sabres might be showing signs of regression to their talent and experience level. After opening the season with a 17-6-2 record, Buffalo is 3-3-3 in their last nine games heading into Week 12, including a 4-3 shootout loss to the Caps on Saturday, their first shootout loss of the season. The Sabres have had a very consistent offense recently, averaging 2.83 goals per game over their last 12 contests and scoring precisely three goals five times in that span. The odd part of their record to date, as we noted in passing last week in this space, is the volume of extra time games this team has played. Of the 34 games played going into the week, 13 ended in extra time for the Sabres, and extra time has been kind to them with an 8-5 record. Buffalo does continue to struggle on the road, though, their shootout loss to the Caps on Saturday being their fourth straight away from upstate New York (0-2-2). Buffalo did end that losing streak when they defeated the Boston Bruins on Sunday, but it is still a team that struggles on the road, particularly with respect to scoring. After that 4-2 win in Boston on Sunday, the Sabres averaged only 2.78 goals per game in their last nine road contests.
Ottawa Senators (14-16-4). Team Chaos hosts the Caps in what will be the last game for Washington before the Christmas holiday. Here is a team that traded its best player in September rather than almost certainly losing him to free agency for nothing next summer (and might have done so well below market to boot), couldn’t stop opponents from scoring to start this season (21 goals allowed in their first four games, three times in their first 21 games allowing seven or more goals, 13 games with five or more goals allowed to date), got into a spat with local government over a new arena, and whose ownership seems to have an uneasy relationship with its fan base. Did we mention that the Senators got lit up for four unanswered goals in the third period to drop a 5-2 decision to the Montreal Canadiens to close out last week? That this team wins at all might be remarkable. But after dropping four in a row in late November, the Senators are 5-4-1 in ten games going into Week 12. That kind of respectability, even over a ten-game stretch, might be something on which to build, although before anyone gets too giddy, that record does include losses in five of their last seven games (2-4-1). One thing to watch for is whether the Senators can break a cold scoring spell on home ice. They have only five goals in their last three games at Canadian Tire Center. On the other hand, this is a team that has allowed only ten goals over their last five home games.
- Alex Ovechkin. Six game goal streak (ten goals, including two hat tricks), 17 goals over his last 14 games, points in all 14 of those games (longest career points streak), goals in each of his last eight road games (11 in all…look out, Ottawa), the Caps with a 17-2-1 in the 20 games in which he scored at least one goal. But try this on. In his last 82 games through Week 11, including the playoffs, Ovechkin has 60 goals. Death Valley is air conditioned compared to this guy.
- John Carlson. Last year’s league leader in points among defensemen is at the top of the heap once, more, tied with Thomas Chabot and Morgan Rielly with 35 points going into Sunday’s games. Carlson had a three-game points streak snapped against Buffalo on Saturday, but he still had 17 points (all assists) in his last 14 games at the close of last week. His 12 multi-point games led all defensemen through Week 11. Five of those games have come in his last 13 contests.
- Travis Boyd. It has been a nice start to this season for Travis Boyd. After getting a cup of coffee with the club last season (one assist in eight games) he is off to a better than half a point per game start to this season with ten points in 16 games (3-7-10). He has even been hotter lately with eight points in his last 11 games, despite having a four-game points streak (including goals in three straight contests) snapped against Buffalo on Saturday.
- Matt Niskanen. Although his overall numbers (4-10-14 in 32 games) are slightly ahead of last year’s pace (7-22-29 in 68 games, Matt Niskanen is without a point over his last four contests. He has one goal over his last 17 games on 26 shots.
- Chandler Stephenson. After dressing for the first 30 games this season, Chandler Stephenson was held out of Friday’s game against Carolina as a healthy scratch. It didn’t pay immediate dividends when he returned to the lineup the following night against Buffalo. When he went without a point, it was his fifth straight and 11th in 12 games without a point, and it was his 15th game this season out of 31 without a shot on goal.
- Lars Eller. In Week 10, Lars Eller went without a point stretching his streak of games without one to seven, his longest since he had a seven-game streak without a point last December. It matters. The Caps are 7-1-2 in the ten games in which Eller has a point this season.
- Lost in the usual hoopla that accompanies a Caps-Penguins game is this obscure fact. With a win, the Caps would draw even in wins and regulation losses in the all-time series against Pittsburgh. The Caps currently have a 98-99-10 record (with 16 ties) in the all-time regular season series.
- Only once in their last 21 games have the Caps gone consecutive games without scoring four or more goals. They will try to avoid doing so when they meet Pittsburgh on Wednesday (the Caps scored three in regulation and overtime against Buffalo).
- The Caps have dressed 23 skaters so far this season. All 23 have at least one point. Jonas Siegenthaler was the last to strike a mark on his score sheet with an assist on an Alex Ovechkin goal (his first NHL point) against Carolina on Friday.
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week…
- With five goals, Alex Ovechkin would pass Dave Andreychuk (640) for 14th place on the all-time NHL goal scoring list.
- With three penalty minutes, Ovechkin would tie Chris Simon for 13th place on the all-time Capitals list (666).
- With three shots on goal, Nicklas Backstrom would become the fifth player in Caps history to reach 1,800 shots on goal (Alex Ovechkin, Peter Bondra, Mike Gartner, and Kevin Hatcher being the others).
- For what it’s worth, John Carlson’s next goal will tie Jaromir Jagr for goals scored as a Capital (83).
- Carlson’s next even strength goal will be his 59th as a Capital, breaking a tie with Calle Johansson for fourth place among defensemen in Capitals history. Two more, and he ties Mike Green for third place on that list.
- With two power play goals, Carlson would tie Sylvain Cote for seventh place among defensemen in Caps history (25).
- With two game-winning goals, Evgeny Kuznetsov would move into a tie for 20th place on the all-time franchise list, joining Craig Laughlin and Sergei Gonchar with 19. Ditto for John Carlson.
- Braden Holtby needs one shutout to tie Olaf Kolzig for the most shutouts by a goalie in Caps history (35).
- If Holtby faces 41 shots, he will move into the top-100 goalies in career shots on goal faced , passing Bob Sauve (11,054).
- If Holtby records a point, he would join Kolzig as the only goalies in Caps history to score at least ten career points (Kolzig had 17).