The Caps embark on the last third of the regular season with a four-game slate this week. After wrapping up their six-game home stand on Monday, their longest of the season, they will head out on the road for six games, their longest stretch away from Capital One Arena this season.
Los Angeles Kings (Monday/7:00). These are not the best of times for the Los Angeles Kings. In fact, the Kings have been something of an also-ran since they won their second Stanley Cup in three years back in 2014. In four seasons since, they made the playoffs only twice and did not win a series in either trip to the postseason. They are a betting certainty to miss the postseason this year, making it the first time the Kings will miss the postseason in consecutive years since they went six straight seasons out of the running ending in 2008-09.
The Kings, who go into the new week with the second-worst record in the Western Conference (a tie-breaker ahead of the Anaheim Ducks) are a team that lacks punch on offense. Their 2.36 goals per game scoring offense is second-worst in the league (Anaheim: 2.21), their power play (15.3 percent) is fourth-worst, and only two team have fewer shots per game than the 28.6 posted by the Kings (Anaheim: 27.5; New York Rangers: 28.6).
What makes this game difficult for the Kings is that it comes as the last game of a six-game road trip, made more grueling by the fact that three of the first five of them were settled in extra time, one in shootout. Los Angeles is, however, 3-1-1 on the trip so far, although the wins came against three non-playoff qualifiers (Rangers, Devils, and Flyers).
The odd part of the Kings’ record that might be some cause for concern is that they are a decent road team, at least compared to their overall record. Their 11-14-4 record (26 points) ranks 21st in the league in road record going into the new week.
Columbus Blue Jackets (Tuesday/7:00). Columbus will be well rested against the Caps, a team that will be going on the road to close the loop on a set of back-to-back games. Columbus last took the ice on Saturday in Vegas where they beat the Golden Knights, 4-3. The win was Columbus’ third in a row, all on the road, following a five game losing streak that followed a four-game winning streak.
The Blue Jackets have not had much time spent on home ice in the new year, just six games in Columbus since January 1st, tied for fewest in the Eastern Conference with Carolina as the week begins. But it is not as if the Blue Jackets have done much with their limited home-ice opportunities. They are just 3-3-0 in those six games, scoring 22 goals and allowing 22 goals. Their special teams have been quite good, at least, as they are 4-for-15 on the power play in those six games (26.7 percent), ninth in the league on home ice in the new year, and one of just two teams in the league with a perfect penalty kill on home ice since January 1st (14-for-14), along with the Florida Panthers (12-for-12).
There is an odd similarity between these teams to watch, and that is how these teams score by period. As the week begins, both Columbus and Washington have 57 first period goals scored, and both teams have 51 goals scored in the third periods of games. It is in the second period where the Blue Jackets have a disadvantage with 62 goals scored to the 71 for the Caps. In that same vein, it might be worth paying attention to how the Blue Jackets start and how the Caps finish in goals allowed. Columbus has allowed more first period goals (59) than all but three teams in the league this season, while the Caps have allowed more third period goals (64, tied with the Rangers) than all but three teams.
Then there is the soap opera on the personnel front that could be a distraction for the rest of the month, if not longer, in Columbus. Artemi Panarin emptied both barrels at the front office this past week, announcing his intention to test free agency in the summer and by replacing his agent with the same agent employed by teammate (and free agent to be) goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
San Jose Sharks (Thursday/10:30). The Caps open their annual California trip with a stop in San Jose to face the Sharks. For years, this was a notoriously difficult city for the Caps, who did not win a game in regulation time over a period of more than 21 years ending with a loss in March 2017. Both of the two wins earned in that span in posting a 2-13-0 record (with one tie), came in extra time, on consecutive visits in 2014 and 2015. The Caps ended that streak last March with a 2-0 blanking of the Sharks behind a 24-save effort by former Caps goalie Philipp Grubauer.
As if that history is not bad enough, the Sharks have been close to unbeatable on home ice over the last two months. They have points in 15 of their last 16 games on home ice (12-1-3). That they have only the third-best record in the league over that span is a product of having played only 16 games on home ice, fewer than Tampa Bay (14-2-2) and Calgary (13-2-4). They will face the Caps not having played on home ice since February 2nd, but on the other hand they will bring a seven-game winning streak on home ice into the game, a streak in which they have not allowed more than two goals in any game (12 in all).
San Jose has been a difficult team to attack on home ice all season. Their 62 goals allowed are third-fewest in the league, while the 694 shots allowed are fewest by a substantial margin (Colorado: 733). The Sharks do not put themselves in harm’s way by going shorthanded often, their 63 shorthanded situations faced on home ice being the fewest in the league, leading to their eight power play goals allowed tied for fewest with Vegas. This is a formidable defensive team in just about any respect one might consider.
Anaheim Ducks (Sunday/9:00). The middle game on the Caps’ California tour wraps up the week. Whether the Ducks will enter that game with the worst record in the Western Conference remains to be seen, but that is how they are starting the week. This is a team that does nothing particularly well by NHL standards. They are last in scoring offense entering the new week (2.21 goals per game), 23rd in scoring defense (3.21). They have the third-worst power play in the league (14.9 percent), and they rank 19th on the penalty kill (79.7 percent). They have an anemic shot average per game (27.5), last in the league; while they yield a ton (34.3 per game), third-most in the league. They lose more often than not when scoring first (12-8-5), and they do so when giving up the game’s first goal (9-18-4). They have almost as many wins in extra time (seven) as they do in regulation (nine)
It is even worse for the Ducks on home ice. They have not won at Honda Center since they beat the Dallas Stars, 6-3, on December 12th, posting a 0-4-3 record since then. Only Arizona has scored two or fewer goals more often on home ice (16) than the Ducks (14). No team has fewer power play goals on home ice than the Ducks (eight). Their shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 on home ice (minus-107) is tied for fourth-worst in the league (with the Caps, as it turns out).
It was enough to force the Ducks’ hand and relieve head coach Randy Carlyle of his duties on Sunday. He will be replaced by general manager Rob Murray for the remainder of the season. Murray has no previous NHL coaching experience.
The change behind the bench and Anaheim’s season-long struggles could be helpful to the Caps who, after winning six straight games in Anaheim to open the post-2005-2006 era in the NHL, have lost the last two meetings in Anaheim in blowouts, a 5-2 loss in March 2017 and a 4-0 loss last March.
- Evgeny Kuznetsov. Yes, he is back from last week’s list, but it would be hard to keep a player with four goals and four assists on the current home stand off of it, those being Kuznetsov’s points over the last five games. He is 5-6-11, plus-6, over his last seven games overall.
- Brett Connolly. Over his last three games, Brett Connolly has as many goals (three) as he had in his previous 21 games. It put him back on pace to set a career high in goals this season (18), surpassing the 15 goals he recorded with the Caps in each of the last two seasons.
- Alex Ovechkin. His goal scoring has slowed some (none in his last four games), but his assists are picking up. Although eight assists in his last 14 games might not sound particularly impressive, that is a 47-assist pace per 82 games. He has not had more assists in a season since he posted 53 in 2010-2011. It is quite a jump from the 16 assists he posted in his first 40 games (a 33-assist pace).
- Michal Kempny. Since he scored a goal on New Year’s Eve in a 6-3 loss to the Nashville Predators, Michal Kempny has one goal on 34 shots in his last 17 games, no goals in his last 14 games along with a minus-3 rating.
- Pheonix Copley. In his last four games, Pheonix Copley has a save percentage of .858 (103 saves on 123 shots) after starting the season with a .916 save percentage in his first 16 appearances.
- Braden Holtby. So far this season, Braden Holtby has a save percentage of .971 in three games against the Boston Bruins. His save percentage against everyone else is .900 in 36 games.
- Home or away, the Caps’ penalty kill is a bucket o’ “meh.” They are 78.2 percent on home ice, 78.4 percent on the road.
- The power play is a completely different story. At home, the Caps hum along at 24.5 percent, seventh-best in the league. On the road, though, they are at 15.0 percent, fourth-worst in the league.
- No team has spent less ice time with a man advantage on the road this season than the Caps (104:52). Only two teams have spent more time on the power play on home ice than the Caps (172:04) – Nashville (173:22) and Montreal (178:51).
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week…
- With three assists, Evgeny Kuznetsov (221) will tie Dave Christian (224) for 19th place on the all-time franchise list.
- Nicklas Backstrom’s next even strength goal will be his 150th in his career.
- A hat trick for Alex Ovechkin this week, and he will break a tie with Jari Kurri for tenth place on the all-time list (both have 23).
- With two even-strength goals this week, Ovechkin would tie Guy Lafleur for 16th place all-time (403). Four even strength goals, and he would tie Mario Lemieux for 15th place (405).
- With three assists, John Carlson would reach the 300 assist mark in his career, the 11th player in Capitals history to reach that mark and the third defenseman to do so, joining Calle Johansson (361) and Scott Stevens (331).
- Kuznetsov needs one game-winning goal to reach 20 for his career and tie Mike Green, Marcus Johansson, and Dmitri Khristich for 17th place on the franchise list.
- T.J. Oshie’s next power play goal will break a three-way tie with Steve Konowalchuk and Troy Brouwer (30 power play goals apiece) for 24th place in team history.
- With one power play goal, Kuznetsov would tie Dino Ciccarelli (28) for 29th place in team history. Two, and he would tie Larry Murphy and Jaromir Jagr (29) for 27th place in team history.
- John Carlson’s next goal will tie Larry Murphy (86) for seventh place in team history among defensemen.
- With two goals, John Carlson would reach double digits in goals for the fourth time in his career, tied with Calle Johansson and Larry Murphy for fifth-most among defensemen in franchise history (Sergei Gonchar and Kevin Hatcher lead with seven).
- T.J. Oshie needs five points to reach 500 for his career.
- Braden Holtby has 34 career shutouts. With one more he would tie Olaf Kolzig for the all-time franchise lead among goaltenders.