Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images
The Caps return home after their most successful California trip ever, but there is no let up in the challenges facing them in Week 11.
The Washington Capitals, league’s top team and fresh off the rare sweep of games played by an Eastern Conference team against the three teams in California, return home for two games before ending Week 11 with a visit to Florida and the Tampa Bay Lightning. It is a week that will present a stiff challenge to what is also the league’s hottest team entering the new week.
Columbus Blue Jackets (Monday/7:00pm)
The Capitals, despite having played more than a third of their regular season, have faced Metropolitan Division rivals only five times. Only five teams in the league faced Metro teams that many or fewer times, and all of them live in the Western Conference. This will be the first meeting of these clubs this season, but they will become familiar quickly, facing one another three times in a span of eight games and 16 days.
The Blue Jackets are doing about as well as expected in coping with a post-Sergei Bobrovsky, post-Artemi Panarin world. They are 11-14-4 entering the week, a reversal of the 16-11-2 record that Columbus had after 29 games last season.
The deterioration in scoring defense, from 2.82 goals per game last season to 3.10 goals per game so far this season, is not surprising given the loss of a world-class goaltender such as Bobrovsky. But Bobrovsky did not play defense, and the shots allowed per game is up, too, from 31.6 shots per game last season to 33.7 shots per game through 29 games this season. Two shots per game does not sound like a lot, but if the Blue Jackets had the same save percentage this year as last among goalies, they would still be hovering around allowing three goals per game, accounting for a bit more than half of the increase in goals per game allowed.
The Blue Jackets have had to contend with streakiness, too, and not the good kind. Their longest winning streak so far this season was three games, in Games 19-21 in mid-November. However, they had a five-game losing streak to end October and begin November (0-4-1), and they are going into this game against Washington facing the possibility of matching that five-game losing streak, having lost their last four games in regulation. And, Columbus has found different ways to build losing streaks. The earlier five-gamer was a product of leaky defense, the Blue Jackets allowing 20 goals in five games. In the four-game streak in which they currently find themselves, scoring has dried up, posting five goals in all, part of a longer drought in which they scored 13 goals in seven games, six time recording two or fewer goals.
Boston Bruins (Wednesday/7:00pm)
This will be the league’s marquee matchup for the week, a meeting of the teams with the two top records in the league at Capital One Arena. The Caps hold a three-point lead on Boston entering the week, but the Bruins have a game in hand. Both teams are 8-1-1 over their last ten games. They are one-two in goal differential in the Eastern Conference, Boston at plus-32, the Caps at plus-27. Their venue records for this game are almost identical, the Caps with an 8-2-4 record at home entering the week, and the Bruins with an 8-3-1 road record.
The Bruins, despite their sparkling record to date, have given evidence of being a bit streaky in wins and losses over their last 20 or so games. They wrapped up October and started November with a six-game winning streak, followed by losing five of six (1-2-3, all three extra time losses in shootouts). Then, they peeled off an eight-game winning streak, but they come into the new week having lost two in a row, a 4-3 overtime loss to Chicago and a 4-1 loss to Colorado, both at home, the latter being the Bruins’ first regulation loss on home ice this season. The good news for the Bruins is that they go into the new week with a four-game winning streak on the road, outscoring opponents by a 19-5 margin.
Boston is one of those teams that displays a consistent, if sometimes taken for granted, level of excellence. Starting with their Stanley Cup winning season of 2010-2011, no team has put together more 40-plus win seasons than Boston through last season (eight, tied with Pittsburgh and San Jose). Only two teams have more wins overall over that span – Pittsburgh (436) and the Caps (430) – than the Bruins (423).
There is little mystery about how the Bruins have done it – score and do not be scored upon. They are the only team in the league going into the new week with a top-five scoring offense (3.50 goals per game/fifth) and a top-five scoring defense (2.30 goals allowed per game/second). Both special teams squads are top-ten, the power play ranked third (28.4 percent) and the penalty kill ranked seventh (84.4 percent).
Tampa Bay Lightning (Saturday/7:00pm)
The Caps wrap up the week renewing their rivalry with the Tampa Bay Lightning, making their first visit to Amalie Arena after beating the Lightning in the first meeting of the clubs, 4-3 in overtime, at Capital One Arena on Black Friday.
The Lightning are spinning their wheels after trying a league record for wins in a season (62) last year. They have already lost ten games in regulation through 27 games played after losing only 16 games in last year’s 82-game season. They do have a pair of three-game winning streaks this season and only one three-game losing streak (0-2-1), but it was that streak that kicked off a rough stretch for the Bolts, who are 2-3-1 in their last six games going into the new week.
For the Lightning, the tough part has not been scoring. They can still do so in bunches. Six times in their last 16 games they scored five or more goals, and only Pittsburgh has scored six or more with more frequency this season (six times) than the Lightning (five, tied with Colorado and Vancouver). The Lightning enter the week with the top scoring offense in the league (3.74 goals per game).
The surprising part is the defense. They allow a lot of shots (32.9 per game/fourth-most in the league), despite not allowing a lot of shot attempts at 5-on-5 (1,160, fewest in the league). However, the shots allowed are not much different from last season (32.1 shots allowed per game). Still, they are giving up more than half a goal more per game (3.22) compared to last season (2.70). A large part of that scoring defense is a collapse of the penalty kill on the road, although that will have no bearing on this game. The Lightning have a 72.5 percent road kill (no pun intended) this season compared to 83.8 percent last year.
What will have a bearing on this game is Tampa Bay’s curious inability to win at home. Last season the Lightning won 32 games on home ice. Only eight teams in league history won more, and none of them since Detroit did it in 1995-1996 on their way to setting a league record for wins until the Lightning did it last season on their way to tying that record. This season, though, the Lightning are just 7-5-1 on home ice, closing in on last year’s total of seven losses in regulation on home ice.
- Jakub Vrana. Since Thanksgiving, a trio of Capitals have seven points to lead the club. Jakub Vrana is one of them, posting four goals (tied with Alex Ovechkin over that span for the team lead) and doing it efficiently, converting 18.2 percent of the 22 shots he took over those five games.
- John Carlson. The points just keep coming for John Carlson. He is tied with Vrana for the team lead in points since Thanksgiving (3-4-7), and he has a huge lead in scoring among defensemen over the season to date, his 43 points going into the new week 15 more than Colorado’s Cale Makar and Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton.
- T.J. Oshie. He has been quiet on the goal-scoring front since Thanksgiving, posting one in five games. But, his six assists over those five games make T.J. Oshie the third player with seven points for the Caps since Turkey Day. Those six assists in five games more than doubled his total (five) posted in his first 26 games this season.
- Brendan Leipsic. It’s been a bit of a chilly stretch for Brendan Leipsic. He is without a point since Thanksgiving, but that might not be the odd number. The feisty forward has as many credited hits in his last five games as Vrana (four) and Travis Boyd (four).
- Richard Panik. The “try” is there for Richard Panik since he returned from injury on November 11th, but the results aren’t yet there. He does have two goals in 13 games since his return, but none in five games since Thanksgiving, and he does not have an assist since, well, ever as a Capital yet.
- Michal Kempny. Since his big start after returning from off-season surgery/rehab (3-8-11, plus-9, in his first 11 games), Kempny has been in an extended dry patch, going 0-1-1, plus-5, in his last 12 games.
- The Caps have two games against Atlantic Division rivals this week. That they have been successful against the Atlantic has been noted in this and other spaces. But the Caps are hardly the only Metropolitan Division team to beat up on the Atlantic. Washington’s 8-1-0 record is tied for third-best against the Atlantic with another Metro team, the New York Islanders (8-1-0). Tops in record against the Atlantic is Carolina, yet another Metro team (9-2-0). No Atlantic team has more than seven wins against division rivals.
- The Caps also get a Metropolitan Division rival this week in the Columbus Blue Jackets. Only the Los Angeles Kings have scored fewer goals against Metro teams this season (five in three games) than the Caps (11). Then again, the Caps have played only five games against division rivals, but still, the 2.20 goals per game is rather anemic. Nevertheless, the Caps do have a 3-1-1 record, because they have only allowed 11 goals in those five games.
- Five of the 11 goals allowed by the Caps to Metro rivals so far this season have come on power plays. The 68.8 percent penalty kill against Metro teams is worst in the division by a lot (Carolina is 78.8 percent in penalty killing in the Metro).
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week:
- 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 in Tampa to end the 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 22 career game-winning goals, John Carlson needs one to break a tie with Bobby/Bob Carpenter for 15th place among all skaters on the team’s all-time game-winning goals list and tie Bobby Gould and Steve Konowalchuk for 13th place. Two, and he would tie Kevin Hatcher and Brooks Laich (24) for 11th place.
- 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).
- Tom Wilson needs four assists to reach 100 career assists.
- With his next blocked shot, Jonas Siegenthaler will reach the 100 mark with the Caps in that statistic…ouch.
- 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.
- 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 and/or Evgeny Kuznetsov would break a tie with Calle Johansson and Mike Green for 23rd place on the all-time team list for goals scored (all with 113) and tie Ryan Walter for 22nd place (114).
- T.J. Oshie needs 44 minutes of ice time to reach 6,000 minutes played as a Capital, the 26th player to do so since the league started capturing time on ice statistics in 1997-1998.
- With his next shutout, Holtby will break a tie with Olaf Kolzig (35) for most shutouts by a goaltender for the Caps.