‘Tis the season, Caps fans, and the Washington Capitals go into Christmas week leading the Metropolitan Division. They will end it having played a light post-Christmas schedule with two games on the docket, continuing their tour through the Eastern Conference that started back on December 8th. They hope to build on their 6-1-0 record against Eastern Conference teams in that span.
The challenge for the Caps this week will be, first, to shake off the holiday hangover, and second, to do it against teams they faced recently, both of them having lost to the Caps earlier this month.
Carolina Hurricanes. The Caps visited Carolina on December 14th, letting the Hurricanes get out to a 4-1 lead before the Caps roared back to tie the game with three goals in less than six minutes late in the second period. After the Caps took a lead on an Alex Ovechkin goal in the third period, it was the Hurricanes’ turn to come back, Justin Williams scoring with less than seven minutes left to knot the game at five apiece. After a scoreless overtime, Jakub Vrana won it for the Caps in the sixth round of the shootout. That game knocked a bit of starch out of the Hurricanes who, after beating Arizona in their next contest, dropped a pair of three-goals decisions – a 4-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings and a 3-0 blanking by the Pittsburgh Penguins, both on home ice.
There has to be a bit of urgency setting in for Carolina, a team that started the month five points behind the first-place Capitals in the Metropolitan Division, secure in a playoff spot as the third-place team in the division. However, Carolina now finds themselves 12 points behind the Caps and in sixth place in the Metro. They are eight points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. None of this is surprising, given that the Hurricanes’ 3-6-1 record is 30th in the league for December.
It is a team that cannot score (24 goals, tied for 27th in the league in December), cannot score at even strength (16 goals in ten games for the month), and are having trouble keeping other teams from scoring (3.30 goals allowed per game). What is hidden in all this is that Carolina has the league’s fifth best penalty kill in the league in December (87.9 percent) going into this week. Of note, almost half of the team’s 24 goals have come off the sticks of Sebastian Aho (seven) and Andrei Svechnikov (four). And, it is worth noting that Petr Mrazek is the only goalie with wins this month, recording all three in Carolina’s 3-6-1 month to date.
Ottawa Senators. The Caps will return to the same ice sheet that they shut out the Ottawa Senators last Saturday when they take on the Senators this Saturday. Ottawa is another of those clubs that has struggled in December, going 4-6-1 for the month going into Week 13. They have a goal differential of minus-11 in 11 games played, tied with Carolina and the St. Louis Blues for worst goal differential in December as the new week begins.
One problem for the Senators is that the ice has been tilted so much in the wrong direction. They have allowed 412 shots on goal this month (third-most in the league) while recording only 296 of their own (tied with the Caps for sixth-fewest). The 607 shot attempts allowed at 5-n-5 are second-highest in the league, while their own 445 shot attempts at fives ranks 20th. Their minus-132 in 5-on-5 shot attempts is worst in the league by a mile (Detroit is at minus-136 with one more game played going into the week). The shot volumes that the Senators are facing are making it difficult for goalies to cope. For instance, Craig Anderson has a decent, if unexceptional .911 save percentage for the month. However, having to face almost 37 shots per 60 minutes he played so far this month, his 3.27 goals against average ranked 30th among 37 goalies appearing in at least five games this month through Saturday’s games.
It is not surprising that the Ottawa offense has been as bad as it has over the course of the month, given the ice tilt, but making it worse is that of the 26 goals they scored over 11 games heading into Week 13, six of them came in the first game of the month, a 6-2 win over the San Jose Sharks. In ten games since, Ottawa has only 20 goals overall and only two games in which they scored more than two goals, a 4-2 win in Detroit over the Red Wings on December 14th, and a 4-3 overtime win over the Nashville Predators on December 17th.
- Evgeny Kuznetsov. Although Evgeny Kuznetsov had only one point (an assist) in three games last week, he has yet to go consecutive games played without a point this season, and he has points in 23 of the 29 games he has dressed for so far. Kuznetsov will be trying to avoid those consecutive games without a point when he takes the ice against Carolina on Thursday.
- Pheonix Copley. In his first start for the Caps this season, Pheonix Copley was lit up for six goals on 36 shots in a 6-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Since then, he has done his best to make people forget Philipp Grubauer as the Caps’ backup netminder. In 11 appearances since then, he has a record of 8-1-1 (one no-decision), 2.34, .921, with one shutout, that coming against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, his first NHL shutout. If anything, he has been hotter lately. After allowing four goals on 22 shots and getting a “no-decision” against the Montreal Canadiens on November 19th, he has stopped 115 of 123 shots (.935 save percentage) in four games, all wins, three of them on the road.
- Matt Niskanen. One game does not a cold streak end (he was a “Cold Cap” last week in this space), but when Matt Niskanen scored against the Ottawa Senators in the Caps’ 4-0 win on Saturday, it snapped a six-game streak with neither a goal nor a point. It was NIskanen’s third goal on the road this season, all of them Caps wins, and his second goal in his last four road games. He leads Caps defensemen in goals in December (two) and is second in points (four).
- Devante Smith-Pelly. DSP has appeared in this space before, and he returns with having posted only one point so far this month (an assist). That point is the only one he has in his last 14 games, and his streak without a goal also extends to 14 games, dating back to November 21st in a 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. It matters in the way second and third tier scoring matter. In 13 losses in which he played so far this season, he has one point (a goal in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers on October 19th).
- Dmitry Orlov. The last time that Dmitry Orlov scored a regular season goal at Capital One Arena was last February 11th in a 5-4 win over the Detroit Red Wings. That is 29 games and counting for Orlov, who gets a chance to halt that skid on Thursday against Carolina. That might be a good sign. Orlov has four career goals against the Hurricanes. Only against the Philadelphia Flyers does he have more in his career (five).
- Penalty Killers. No team in the NHL has a worse penalty kill in December than the Caps going into the coming week. Only Colorado who, like the Caps, have 25 kills in 35 shorthanded situations, is as bad (71.4 percent). For the season, the Caps have allowed at least one power play goal in 20 games, tied for seventh-most in the league with Detroit. They are 9-9-2 in those games, 13-1-1 in games in which they do not allow a power play goal, tied with the Edmonton Oilers for the fewest regulation and total losses when shutting teams out on the power play.
- In their incarnation as the “Carolina Hurricanes,” since the 1997-1998 season, they have almost 100 more power play opportunities than the Caps have had (524 to 427) in the series between the teams.
- The NHL has been doing this shootout thing since 2005-2006. The Caps have participated 70 times in that span on home ice. Their record is 35-35.
- The Caps are having what might be an historically poor penalty kill this season. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, this year’s edition (76.4 percent) is the worst by the club in 14 seasons and is, for the moment, worse than any Capitals team since the 1981-1982 season (78.6 percent).
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 goals, T.J. Oshie would reach the 200-goal mark for his career.
- With three points, Evgeny Kuznetsov would reach the 300-point mark of his career.
- With two penalty minutes, Ovechkin would pass Chris Simon for 13th place on the all-time Capitals list (666).
- Nicklas Backstrom needs three power play goals to tie Dale Hunter for fourth place in team history (72).
- With one shot 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).
- As noted last week, John Carlson’s next goal will tie Jaromir Jagr for goals scored as a Capital (83).
- John 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 four assists, John Carlson will tie Adam Oates for 11th place in team history in assists (290).
- With one assist, Evgeny Kuznetsov will tie Alexander Semin for 20th place in team history in assists (211)
- 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 records a point, he would join Kolzig as the only goalies in Caps history to score at least ten career points (Kolzig had 17).