The NHL returns from the All-Star Game break, and the Washington Capitals return to the ice on Monday after an eight-day hiatus. The Caps will head into a four-game week occupying the same space they occupied when they went on break – first place in the league standings. Staying there will be, as always, a challenge.
Montreal Canadiens (Monday/7:00pm)
Like the Caps, Montreal will be coming off an eight-day break, not having skated since beating the Vegas Golden Knights in a shootout, 5-4, on January 18th. It was the fourth win in five games for the Canadiens, who face the daunting task of having to make up a ten=point deficit and jump over four teams to qualify for a wild card spot in the playoffs with 32 games left on their schedule.
What put them in such a deep hole was an eight-game losing streak just before they went on their four wins in five games run. Montreal has struggled on offense of late, scoring 25 goals in their last 11 games and held to two or fewer goals in eight of those games. They did score four goals (not including the shootout goal against Vegas) in their last two games, so if you are a cup-half-full sort of Canadiens fan, you might think the team is coming out of their funk. For the cup-half-empty crowd, the break came at the worst time for maintaining offensive momentum.
Things have been even worse for Montreal at home. Since posting a four-game home winning streak in early November, the Canadiens have managed only a 4-9-4, the second-worst points percentage (.353) on home ice over that span. Only the Detroit Red Wings (.281/4-11-1) were worse. Unsurprisingly, over that span the Canadiens have the third-worst scoring offense on home ice (2.41 goals per game) and the fourth-worst scoring defense (3.47 goals allowed per game). On special teams, the power play has been anemic for the Canadiens at Bell Centre. Over that 17-game span since November 16th, their power play ranks 30th (11.4 percent), and when shorthanded goals scored against are factored in, the net power play is 0.0%, worst in the league.
Montreal’s offense, both at even strength and on the power play, will bear watching in this game. Even though the Caps have had unusual success in Montreal in recent years (13-1-1 in their last 15 games in Montreal dating back to March 2015), the Canadiens have scored a total of 14 goals against the Caps in their last three meetings at Bell Centre.
Nashville Predators (Wednesday/7:30pm)
The Nashville Predators occupy a spot they have never occupied in their 21 NHL seasons – last place in their division. Once (in 2013-2014) they finished sixth in the seven-team Central Division, and before than never lower than fifth (twice). But seventh? Last? Never. The performance cost head coach Peter Laviolette his job on January 6th with the Predators languishing with a 19-15-7 record and losses in four of their previous five games. John Hynes, formerly head coach of the New Jersey Devils (150-159-45 in four-plus seasons), took over for Laviolette and is 3-2-0 in the last five games with the Preds, after losing his first game as head coach, heading into the new week.
Nashville’s problem has not been scoring, nor should it be. A team that boasts the firepower that includes Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Roman Josi is an unsurprising eighth in the league in scoring offense overall (3.30 goals per game). It is the other side of the puck that has been a problem. The current version of the Predators is the worst in team history, so far, in scoring defense, allowing 3.21 goals per game (the inaugural 1998-1999 squad allowed 3.18 goals per game). That ranks 23rd in the league in scoring defense overall as the team moves into the new week.
The scoring defense problems have not been a function of shots. Nashville is tied (with Washington) for having allowed the fifth-fewest number of shot attempts at 5-on-5 this season, and their plus-201 shot attempt differential at fives is seventh-best in the league. If you want to look elsewhere for systemic problems at the defensive end, look to the penalty kill. The Predators do not allow a lot of power play chances (148, tied with Boston and Colorado for 15th in the league), but they do allow a lot of goals. Only Detroit has allowed more power play goals this season (42) than the Predators, and Nashville’s 73.7 percent penalty kill ranks 29th of 31 teams overall.
If the Caps are to be successful in their first home game after the break, watch their power play. Nashville has allowed at least one power play goal in nine of their last ten road games, going a ghastly 20-for-35 (57.1percent) on the penalty kill on the road.
Ottawa Senators (Friday/7:30pm)
Washington returns to the road for their first and only visit to Ottawa this season to face the Senators in what is the middle game of the three-game season series between the clubs. The Caps dominated the Senators in their first meeting, a 6-1 win at Capital One Arena, on January 7th, a game that featured a pair of goals from both T.J. Oshie and Alex Ovechkin.
The Senators, who were not expected to challenge for a playoff spot this season, are getting to a point in their season where the smallest glimmer of hope is something to hang on to. Ottawa suffered a nine-game losing streak in the run-up to the All-Star Game break (0-5-4), but they did soundly beat a strong Calgary Flames team on home ice in their last game before the break, 5-2, on January 18th. It was their biggest offensive explosion in regulation in almost six weeks, dating back to a 5-2 win over Boston on December 9th.
Ottawa simply has not yet found a formula to keep pucks out of their own net. Over the last three seasons, including this one, the Senators have the worst scoring defense of any team in the league, and it is not close (3.51 goals allowed per game to 3.37 goals allowed per game by Detroit). The Senators have improved a bit this year, but their 3.33 goals allowed per game are still third-most in the league at the break.
This is a team that gives up a lot of shot attempts at even strength (2,336, sixth-most in the league) and struggles in all situations in shot attempt differential at 5-on-5: all situations (minus-284/28th in the league), tied (minus-122/29th), ahead (minus-137/22nd), behind (minus-25/28th), and in close situations (minus-200/29th). This could be the focus of this game, given that the Caps have scored 57 goals at 5-on-5 on the road going into the new week, tied for fourth-most in the league, and they have scored first in games on the road 13 times so far, tied for fifth-most in the league.
Pittsburgh Penguins (Sunday/12:30pm)
The Caps wrap up the week hosting a matinee game against the arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. It is odd that this meeting will come in Game 53 for the Caps on the schedule, but that just means fans will get to see these two teams square off four times in a span of 23 games over seven weeks.
The Penguins are a team that has mastered the concept of crisis management. They have already dressed 29 skaters this season, only five of whom have appeared in all 50 games so far. Large chunks of the schedule have been missed by important pieces – defenseman Kris Letang has missed eight games, center Evgeni Malkin has missed 13 games, winger Jake Guentzel has missed 11 games (and counting; he suffered a shoulder injury in December requiring surgery and is expected to be out 4-6 months), defenseman Brian Dumoulin has missed 27 games (and counting after suffering lacerated ankle tendons).
There are also the 28 games missed by center Sidney Crosby to sports hernia surgery that should have crippled the Penguins beyond repair. But over those 28 games the Penguins went 18-6-4, tying for the league lead in points earned in that span (40) and posting the best points percentage (.714). They weathered Crosby’s absence largely by jumping on opponents early, scoring first in 16 of the 28 games, and then standing on their throats late (13-1-2 when scoring first, 10-0-1 when taking a lead into the third period).
It will be interesting to see if: a) this is a close game between the teams, and b) if so, that the Caps can keep the Penguins from scratching out a win. The Penguins have won their last five road games decided by one goal, four of them in extra time. They are 6-2-2 in one-goal decisions on the road overall this season. On the other hand, the Caps are 6-1-4 in one-goal decisions on home ice this season, and three of the six wins were in extra time. Do not be surprised if this game takes more than 60 minutes to settle.
- Alex Ovechkin. Eight goals in his last three games, including a current streak of two games with hat tricks. In that span, only five players are within a hat trick of Ovechkin’s goal total, and all of them have played in more games. He has done on only 12 shots on goal, an unremarkable total for him, a 66.7 percent shooting percentage.
- Jakub Vrana. Since January 1st, only Ovechkin has more goals than Jakub Vrana (seven), and only Ovechkin and John Carlson have more points (11 and 10, respectively) than Vrana (nine).
- Ilya Samsonov. There is a case to be made for Ilya Samsonov being in the conversation for goalie of the month in January. He and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy are the only goalies appearing in at least five games with a perfect record (Vasilevskiy is 7-0-0, Samsonov is 5-0-0). Samsonov is second in goals against average (1.39) to Vasilevskiy (1.13), and his save percentage (.955) is second to the Tampa Bay netminder (.962).
- Garnet Hathaway. Of the 18 skaters to dress for the Caps in January, Garnet Hathaway is the only one yet to record a point.
- Brendan Leipsic. Of those same 18 skaters to take the ice in January, Brendan Leipsic is the only one to average less than ten minutes of ice time per game (8:54). He has skated over ten minutes only 18 times in 49 games overall this season.
- Richard Panik. In eight games in January, Richard Panik has only five shots on goal, fewest of any Capital.
- With one more one-goal win this season, the 2019-2020 Caps will become the ninth team in franchise history to win ten one-goal games in a season, and they have a decent chance of setting the franchise record, currently 14 one-goal wins by the 2015-2016 Capitals.
- The current Capitals team is on a pace to be the best in franchise history when scoring first in games. Their 12-1-0 record is a better winning percentage (.923) than that with which the 2015-2016 team finished (.900 on an 18-1-1 record).
- This year’s Capitals team is, to date, one of four teams in franchise history with a perfect record when leading after one period. So far, this year’s 8-0-0 team matches those of 2015-2016 (13-0-0), 2014-2015 (11-0-0), and 2000-2001 (7-0-0) in having a 1.000 winning percentage.
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week:
- With one goal, Alex Ovechkin would break a tie with Steve Yzerman for ninth place (692). Two more, and he would tie Mark Messier for eighth place on the all-time list (694).
- With one game-winning goal, Ovechkin would break a tie with Brendan Shanahan (109) for sixth-place in league history, and he would tie Teemu Selanne and Brett Hull for fourth place on the list (110).
- With six points, Ovechkin would tie Jean Ratelle for 37th place on the all-time points list (1,267).
- Ovechkin’s next hat trick will break a tie with Maurice Richard (26) for eighth place on the all-time list; two more and he will tie Marcel Dionne and Bobby Hull for sixth place.
- If Nicklas Backstrom plays in all four games this week, he will tie Kelly Miller for fourth place in career games played for the Caps (940).
- With five shots on goal this week, Nicklas Backstrom would reach the 2,000 shots on goal mark for his career, fourth Capital in team history to do it (Ovechkin: 5,458; Peter Bondra: 3,290; and Mike Gartner: 2,841).
- With 24 career game-winning goals, John Carlson needs one to break a tie with Kevin Hatcher for most all time among Caps defensemen and with Brooks Laich for 11th place on the all-time franchise rankings.
- With one overtime goal, Carlson would be alone in second place among Capital defensemen in career overtime goals with the club (he has two at the moment), trailing only Mike “Game Over” Green (eight).
- Nicklas Backstrom is two overtime goals short of becoming the second player in Caps history with at least ten overtime goals (Ovechkin: 23). He is currently tied with Mike Green for second-most overtime goals in team history (eight).
- T.J. Oshie’s next empty net goal will make him the sixth player in team history with at least ten empty net goals with the Caps.
- Tom Wilson’s next shorthanded goal will make him the active leader among Capitals in shorthanded goals with the club (five), unless Alex Ovechkin gets one first.
- Wilson needs two game-winning goals to become the 50th player in team history with at least ten game-winning goals.
- Backstrom’s next empty net goal will be his 14th career empty netter with the Caps, breaking a tie with Kelly Miller for third place on the all-time franchise list.
- With one goal this week, Evgeny Kuznetsov (currently with 117 goals for the Caps) would tie Guy Charron for 22nd place on the all-time team list for goals scored (118).
- With his next shutout, Holtby will break a tie with Olaf Kolzig (35) for most shutouts by a goaltender for the Caps.