The Washington Capitals head into Week 15 looking at a three-game schedule that offers the chance to put some more distance between themselves and the field in the league standings. They begin and end the week at home against teams that have seen their shares of struggle this season, while they head on the road to take on an old rival who has skidded perilously close to being out of the playoff mix with inconsistent play over the last month.
Ottawa Senators (Tuesday/7:00pm)
Fifteen years ago, Capitals fans saw what the Ottawa Senators are going through these days. An aging team with stars the team could not afford and would not be part of the rebuild that took on an air of inevitability, the roster was torn out to the beams. Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, and Matt Duchene – a quartet that accounted for 74 goals in 2017-2018 on a team that would finish 15th in the 16-team Eastern Conference – are gone. Last season the Senators had the worst record in the league, and some thought things might actually be worse this season.
The Senators should not be confused with a playoff contender, but things are not quite as bad as all that. Yes, this team is 14th in a 16-team conference, but they are on a pace for 31 wins and 72 points, which would be an improvement over the last two seasons when they managed fewer than 30 wins in each and fewer than 70 points in each.
However, like many teams trying to navigate a rebuild, the Senators’ early glimpse of promise that led to a .500 record through 23 games (11-11-1) gave way to a prolonged slump in which they are 5-10-4 in their last 19 games. The hard part for Ottawa has been finding success, any success, on the road. Since winning consecutive road games in Detroit and Montreal in November, the Senators are 1-7-2 in ten road games since, the second-worst road record in the league over that span (Detroit is 1-6-0) and tied with the Red Wings for the fewest wins (one).
During this slide, the Senators have not been able to score (2.10 goals per game/30th in the league), nor have they been able to defend (4.00 goals allowed per game/tied for 29th). Their power play has been awful (8.3 percent/31st), and their penalty kill, while respectable (80.6 percent/12th), has not been nearly enough to offset other shortcomings. In a clear example of the disconnect between possession numbers and performance that might be explained by a lack of skill, Ottawa has performed decently on the road in their slide in the area of shot attempts, for and against, at 5-on-5, posting an overall minus-11 differential (14th in the league) and a share of 49.4 percent (14th).
There might be light at the end of the tunnel for the Senators, though. While they carry a five-game losing streak on the road into their game with the Caps, two of those games went to overtime, and a third was settled by a single goal.
Philadelphia Flyers (Wednesday/7:30pm)
When the Caps visit the Flyers on Wednesday, they will be facing a team returning to home ice after a six-game road trip, the first five games of which were played against teams in the Pacific Division. As the Flyers head into Tuesday’s game in Carolina against the Hurricanes to wrap up their trip, they might be forgiven if they are a bit ornery. It has not been a good trip for them (1-4-0, the win coming in overtime against lowly Anaheim).
The Flyers are another of those teams who, after enjoying some early season success, have hit a wall. They started the season 17-8-5, but after beating Ottawa to reach that record on December 7th, the Flyers went on the road to the midwest, and there their troubles started. Losses in Colorado, Minnesota, and Winnipeg set them on a course where they are 5-7-0 in their last dozen games heading into the new week. And it is not as if the Flyers have been competitive in their losses, for the most part. Of their seven regulation losses in this slump, they lost by multi-goal margins in six, by three or more goals four times.
A big part of the problem in the 5-7-0 run is one that Caps fans will recognize. The Flyers have been shorthanded 41 times in that span, tied for third-most in the league (with the Rangers). They allowed 11 goals in those situations, 25 percent of the 44 goals they allowed in those dozen games, the fifth-highest total in power play goals allowed the league over that span.
Getting home might be the tonic to make the Flyers, if not well, at least better. They have a four-game winning streak on home ice going into their Wednesday game against Washington, and they have lost only one game in regulation on home ice since October 19th (11-1-4). Their overall points percentage on home ice this season (.789 on a 13-2-4 record) is the best in the league, and they have pulverized opponents on their ice sheet, outscoring them, 72-37. That 1.95 goals allowed per game scoring defense on home ice (best in the league) is something Flyer fans hope will reappear when these two teams meet in mid-week.
New Jersey Devils (Saturday/7:00pm)
Folks knew that the Ottawa Senators would be in the midst of a major rebuild. The New Jersey Devils have no such excuse to avoid being considered among the more disappointing teams in the league this season. This was a team widely viewed, if not in the upper echelon of Stanley Cup contenders, then at least a good bet to reach the postseason. But things started poorly for the Devils, a six-game losing streak to start the season (0-4-2), and they have not gotten much better. At no point this season did the Devils reach the .500 mark in points percentage, the closest they got to it after than losing streak to open the season being on November 5th, when they beat the Winnipeg Jets, 2-1 in a shootout, to get to 4-5-4.
Since then, the season has been bleeding away, the Devils with an 11-15-2 record in 28 games since that “high water” mark, their .429 points percentage ranking 29th of 31 teams over that span. Only once in that span did they win consecutive games in regulation (Games 32 and 33 against Arizona and Anaheim last month), although they did post a three-game winning streak (two of the wins in extra time) before losing to Colorado last Saturday.
The Devils’ problem is two-fold. They can’t score (2.39 goals per game in that 28-game slump, 30th in the league in scoring offense), and they can’t defend much better (3.29 goals against per-game, 23rd in scoring defense over that period). And on special teams, the Devils have had a propensity to shoot themselves in the foot. Their power play has been weak over this stretch (14.6 percent/27th), but the 14 power play goals they did score were offset largely by the five shorthanded goals allowed. The net plus-9 in power play goals to shorthanded goals allowed is tied for fourth-worst in the league, while their 9.4 percent net power play is 29th.
The Devils will arrive in Washington on Saturday with a glimmer of hope, based on their recent road record. After enduring a four-game losing streak on the road to open December, the Devils are 4-1-0 in their last five road games. The success has come from employment of an old Devils formula -- defense-centered games played close to the vest. In three of the four wins, the Devils allowed opponents a single goal; three of the four wins have been by one-goal margins, one of them in extra time. The Devils, 13 points out of a playoff spot and with seven teams to climb over to get there, are all but certain to miss the postseason, but they are a team of late that can been an annoyance to the Caps.
- Evgeny Kuznetsov. In a week with two home games, it is worth noting that Evgeny Kuznetsov is third in goals at home (nine) and leads the team in points at Capital One Arena (22).
- T.J. Oshie. In 19 games on home ice, T.J. Oshie has four power play goals to lead the club. His five power play points trail only John Carlson (six) in games played at home so far.
- Dmitry Orlov. John Carlson gets the lion’s share of attention among defensemen for the Caps, but Dmitry Orlov has put together a solid five-week stretch since the first of December, going 1-9-10, plus-6, his lone goal being a game-winner, that in a 3-1 win over Tampa Bay on December 21st.
- Fourth Line. The eyeball test suggests that the line of Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway, and Brendan Leipsic has been good of late, especially as a high energy trio that keeps opponents at bay until the top lines can get back to doing what they do. But this trio combined for one point on home ice since December 1st (Dowd, with a goal) going into Sunday’s game against San Jose. Dowd added a goal and Leipsic an assist against the Sharks, so perhaps that home-ice slump is coming to an end.
- Lars Eller. Another player who was cold, at least until facing San Jose, was Lars Eller. Since Thanksgiving, Lars Eller was 0-1-1 in six games on home ice going into that game against the Sharks, going 0-for-19 shooting and going without a shot on goal in his last home game before Sunday, the 4-3 loss to the Islanders on New Year’s Eve. Eller appears to have broken out, though, with two points, including the game-winning overtime goal, on Sunday.
- Dmitry Orlov. In ten career games played in Philadelphia, Dmitry Orlov has never scored a goal. No active Capital has played in more games in Philly without having scored a goal there.
- Dmitry Orlov has two game-winning goals this season. Both have come against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
- That San Jose game was an odd one in omany respect, but here is one. On home ice this season, three goals is as good an indicator as any of the Caps’ success. Going into the game against the Sharks, the Caps were 11-0-2 when allowing three or fewer goals; when allowing more than three, they were 0-4-2. They allowed more than three goals against the Sharks on Sunday but won, the first time they have done that this season.
- Over the years, giving up the first goal in Philadelphia has been a bad sign for the Caps. They are 8-45-2 (four ties) when allowing the first goal as a visitor in the all-time series with the Flyers. And, it is not as if recent history has been much better. The Caps are 2-7-2 in 11 games when trailing first in Philadelphia. Moral of the story… don’t do that.
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week:
- With two goals, Alex Ovechkin would tie Teemu Selanne for 11th place on the all-time NHL goal scoring list (684).
- With one game-winning goal, Ovechkin would tie Brendan Shanahan (109) for sixth-place in league history; with two he would tie Teemu Selanne and Brett Hull (110) for fourth place.
- If he gets the game-winning goal against the Flyers this week, Ovechkin would record his 50th career game-winning goal in road games.
- Ovechkin’s next hat trick will tie Cy Denneny for ninth place in career hat tricks (Denneny had 25); with two he will tie Maurice Richard (26) for eighth place.
- 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 one penalty minute to become the sixth player in team history with 1,000 penalty minutes.
- 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, T.J. Oshie (currently with 118 goals for the Caps) would pass Guy Charron for 21st place on the all-time team list for goals scored.
- With one goal this week, Evgeny Kuznetsov (117 goals) would tie Charron for 21st place on the franchise all-time goal scoring list.
- With his next shutout, Holtby will break a tie with Olaf Kolzig (35) for most shutouts by a goaltender for the Caps.