After a four-game week in Week 22 in which the Caps split the available standings points with three Metropolitan Division rivals, the Caps move outside the division for its challenges in Week 23. A deceptive week on the schedule it is with three games against “weaker” teams. But in the NHL, “weaker” does not mean “weak,” and it would behoove the Caps to keep that in mind as they try to maintain and expand their razor thin lead in the Metro.
Buffalo Sabres (Monday/7:00pm)
Buffalo got off to an unexpectedly hot start this season, going 8-1-1 in their first ten games. But then reality set in. They went 3-9-3 in their next 15 games to fall back into the standings pack. After a few brief flirtations with competitiveness over their next 37 games, the Sabres go into the new week lugging a six-game losing streak that has left them mired in sixth place in the Atlantic Division and 14th of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference standings.
There is little mystery what has happened to the Sabres. Their offense has deserted them. They are on a seven-game streak of scoring two or fewer goals. If there is a mitigating factor in that slump, it is that the recent schedule for the Sabres has had a road-heavy tilt to it with five of those six consecutive losses coming on the road.
It would be easy to conclude that there is no coincidence that Buffalo is the only team in the league without a standings point earned since the trading deadline (0-6-0), thinking that the team was in sell-off mode and is now playing for next season. That would not explain the Sabres having traded for veteran Wayne Simmonds at the deadline, a move one would normally associate with a contender looking to add a final piece for a playoff run. Simmonds not having recorded a goal in any of the six games in which he has played for the Sabres so far would, however, help explain the Sabres’ troubles.
So would going oh-fer on the power play over those six games, the Sabres having drawn a blank on 14 power plays and adding two shorthanded goals allowed for good measure to record the only negative net power play in the league over that span (minus-14.3 percent). It also has not helped that the Sabres have not carried a lead into the third period in any of those six games, trailing three times and tied three times over those six straight losses.
Detroit Red Wings (Thursday/7:00pm)
Perhaps it is the price a team pays for decades of being among the league’s elite teams. From 1990-1991 through 2015-2016, the Red Wings won more than 100 more regular season games (1,133) than any other NHL team (New Jersey Devils: 1,029), scored more than 100 more goals (6,469) than any other team (Pittsburgh Penguins: 6,368), allowed fewer goals (5,214) than any other team that played in every year of that period except the Devils (4,968), had the best power play (20.3 percent, the only team over 20 percent), and had the second-best penalty kill (83.8 percent) of any team playing every year of that period except the St. Louis Blues (84.0 percent). More important, they reached the playoffs in every one of those 25 seasons, reached the Stanley Cup final six times, and won the Cup four times.
Since then, however, the Red Wings have compiled the worst record in the league going into the new week (112-163-41/.419 points percentage), have the worst scoring offense (2.45 goals per game), have the worst scoring defense (3.26 goals allowed per game), have the worst power play (16.4 percent), and have the worst penalty kill (77.7 percent). They have lost 71 games by three or more goals (fourth-most in the league over the last four seasons) while winning the fewest number of decisions by three or more goals (25), a .260 winning percentage in “blowout” games. Yes, worst in the league over that span.
This year’s club is among the worst in franchise history. Their 39 standings points are tied for fifth-fewest in team history (with the 1930-1931 Detroit Falcons), but the four teams that trail them compiled their points in seasons with fewer than 50 games on the schedule. Their .279 points percentage is third-worst in club history and the worst since the Red Wings went 17-57-6 (40 points/.250 points percentage, worst in team history) in 1985-1986.
It has been even worst on the road. Detroit is 1-15-1 in their last 17 games on the road and have not won a road game in regulation since December 14th when they defeated the Canadiens, 2-1, in Montreal. In those 17 road games, the Red Wings were held to one or fewer goals eight times and scored three or more goals only four times. Theirs is the worst scoring offense (1.76 goals per game) and worst scoring defense (4.06 goals allowed per game) on the road over that stretch. Eight times in those 17 road games, the Red Wings lost by three or more goals. The road has not been kind.
Chicago Blackhawks (Saturday/7:00pm)
The Chicago Blackhawks are another club struggling on the ice in recent years after years of elite play. While their string of success did not match that of the Red Wings, this is a club that, in a nine-year period from 2008-2009 through 2016-2017 won more regular season games (414) than all but two teams, trailed only the Caps in points percentage (.648 to .649), had the third-best scoring offense (3.01 goals per game), and were tied for sixth in scoring defense (2.52 goals allowed per game, with New Jersey). More important, they were a club that rose to the occasion in the postseason. Reaching the playoffs in each of those nine seasons, they won three Stanley Cups.
Since then, they have not fallen on the hard times that the Red Wings experienced, but they have become an also-ran club, failing to make the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons and almost certain to miss the show this spring. The Blackhawks did show signs of life recently with a four-game winning streak, but that momentum slammed to a halt in, of all places, Detroit, with a 2-1 loss to the Red Wings last Friday. They were then shut out, 2-0, by the St. Louis Blues on Sunday to start another losing streak.
That loss to the Red Wings brought to an end a brief run of success at the offensive end of the ice, the Blackhawks posting 22 goals over a five-game stretch overall and scoring five or more three times in that span.
What the Blackhawks have been unable to do of late, though, is win consistently on the road. After a four-game road winning streak through February 1st, the Blackhawks are 3-7-1 in their last 11 road games going into the new week. The Blackhawks have suffered from weak special teams play on the road in that stretch, their 13.2 percent power play ranking 24th in the league and their 71.9 percent penalty kill ranking 25th. They have also had a lack of consistency in their offense, posting five or more goals three times in those 11 road games, but being held to two or fewer six times in that stretch.
- Alex Ovechkin. Since January 1st, no player has more goals scored than Alex Ovechkin (23, tied with the New York Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad). He has eight multi-goal games, including three hat tricks, over that span.
- John Carlson. Since January 1st, no defenseman has more points than John Carlson (25). When he posted two assists in the 6-5 overtime loss to the New York Rangers last week, he became only the fourth defenseman since 2005-2006 to record 15 goals and 60 assists in a season.
- Richard Panik. Since the trading deadline in late February, Richard Panik is the team leader in points (seven in six games).
- Braden Holtby. Since January 1st, among 47 goalies playing at least 250 minutes on home ice, Braden Holtby ranks 46th in save percentage (.867).
- Brenden Dillon. With nine games played for the Caps since his arrival in trade from San Jose, Brenden Dillon is still searching for his first point as a Capital.
- Tom Wilson. While he does have 16 points in 27 games since January 1st (8-8-16), Tom Wilson is a team-worst minus-12 in those 27 games.
- Ponder the question, “what is the toughest city for the Caps to play in?” You might not think Buffalo would make the short list. But from November 1974 to October 1997, the Caps went 8-29-0 with six ties in 43 games and did not win consecutive games. Even over the last 37 games in western New York since November 1997, starting with consecutive wins, the Caps are just 18-17-2 with their longest winning streak being three games.
- The Caps have never lost to the Red Wings on home ice when allowing more than 35 shots on goal (5-0-0 with one tie), but they are just 2-6-0 when allowing the Red Wings fewer than 20 shots on home ice.
- Three is the magic number for the Caps against the Chicago Blackhawks, when it comes to goals scored at home. In 34 games in which the Caps scored three or more goals, they are 27-5-1 (one tie). In 16 games in which the Caps scored fewer than three goals at home against Chicago, they are 2-10-0 (four ties).
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week:
- Alex Ovechkin needs three goals to tie Mike Gartner for seventh place on the all-time NHL goal scoring list (708).
- With one game-winning goal, Ovechkin would break a tie with Teemu Selanne and Brett Hull for fourth place on the list (110).
- Ovechkin’s next hat trick will tie Marcel Dionne and Bobby Hull for sixth place (both with 28).
- If he records an empty net goal, Ovechkin would become the third player in NHL history with 40 or more empty net goals. Wayne Gretzky (56) and Marian Hossa (40) are the others.
- 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).
- Carlson needs two assists to tie Dale Hunter for fifth-place on the all-time franchise list for assists (375).
- If Carlson dresses for all three games this week, he will pass Mike Gartner for eighth place in games played for the Caps (Gartner has 758).
- 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.
- With five hits this week, Tom Wilson would reach the 1,600 hit mark in his career, and with three takeaways he will reach the 200 mark in that category for his career, the tenth Capitals to do so since the league started capturing that statistic in 2005-2006.
- With eight penalty minutes, Tom Wilson will tie Brendan Witt for fifth-place on the club’s all-time list (1,035).
- Wilson needs one game-winning goal to become the 50th player in team history with at least ten game-winning goals.
- If he dresses for one game this week, Dmitry Orlov will break a tie with Joe Reekie for 25th place in games played for the Caps in franchise history (both with 515).
- With his next shutout, Holtby will break a tie with Olaf Kolzig (35) for most shutouts by a goaltender for the Caps.