As if a 48-game schedule wasn’t incentive enough to get off to a fast start and play consistent hockey this season, the calendar has now reached March---- and It doesn’t matter if it’s a lockout shortened season or not, time is now of utmost importance to the suddenly surging but hardly moving Washington Capitals.
After starting the first quarter of the season 3-8-1, the Capitals are 5-3-0 in their past eight contests and have won six of their last nine. There is a ton of good news and bad news scenarios facing Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and the rest of the Caps as the Bruins get set to visit Verizon Center on Tuesday evening.
First, the good news. Washington may be tied for last in the Eastern Conference but at least they are tied with a team from their own division, the Florida Panthers, which the Caps are 2-0-0 against so far this season.
Speaking of their division, Washington, as they always seem to do--- continues to play well within the Southeast. After finishing last season 12-8-4 vs. divisional foes, the Caps are 5-2-0 to start the 2013 campaign.
When you consider that Washington must climb over at least two divisional rivals to make the playoffs, this is a bright light at the end of the tunnel, which is not an oncoming freight train. Another beacon of positive light was Saturday’s 3-0 win in Winnipeg.
This victory was huge on so many levels for the Capitals.
First, the third shutout of the season pitched by Caps net minder Braden Holtby, which tied him for the league lead, is helping him regain the form we witnessed during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.
Holtby’s play (35 saves for the game) in the first period, when he stopped 15 Winnipeg shots, allowed the Capitals to get their legs after they realized the game was not a 7:30 start, instead a local 1:00 p.m. Winnipeg start time. Secondly, the win was another four-point swing game against a team that was playing good hockey, who also happens to be in our division.
Had Winnipeg managed to win their fourth in a row and sixth game in seven tries, they would have opened up an eight-point lead on Washington. As it stands, the Caps now trail the Jets by four points with a huge back-to-back set at the MTS Center in Winnipeg on March 21 & 22 looming.
If there is some bad news to deliver it is that, the Capitals must follow up any loss with a win—period! Washington can ill-afford to lose two and most certainly three games in a row. Losing three times in a row at this point would eat up 10 percent of what is remaining on the schedule.
However, it was good to see that the Caps followed a bad 4-1 setback in Philadelphia last Thursday with the win over a divisional foe on Saturday--- and on the road.
The third thing that was good to see, and worth noting is how the Jets did not score to start the game. Washington is notorious for allowing goals during the first five minutes of a period or the last three minutes of one. Winnipeg entered the contest having scored in the first five minutes in five of their previous six games. However, Braden Holtby and his Caps teammates held the Jets down not just for the first five but also for the entire 60-minutes on Saturday.
THE MATH OF IT ALL:
This could be the bad news. The Capitals have just 28 games remaining in the 2012-13 season. The eighth and final playoff spot in the conference will probably require anywhere from 54 to 58 points this season. Do the math Caps fans, there is not much room for error.
If the Capitals hope to achieve the low end of that total, factoring three one-point games into the equation, Washington must win 17 of the next 28 games (.600 hockey). That would allow the Caps to finish the season 25-19-4, which should be enough. Should is the operative word here.
The high end of that deal could pose a real problem if Washington is forced to win 19 or 20 of their next 28 games. That means Washington would have to play at the very least .660-point percentage hockey to make the playoffs, as I said----THERE IS NO ROOM FOR ERROR.
This is where the Capitals may simply not be deep or consistent enough to endure what the March schedule has lined up for them. With 15 games in the next 26 days, The Great 8 and company cannot disappear for stretches as they have been prone to do or the season will quickly disappear.
WHO IS HOT AND WHO IS NOT:
The Capitals front office is a good place to start for this one. With all of the talk around the D.C. and Baltimore area about Baltimore Ravens QB, Joe Flacco’s new contract, the Capitals have been busy dolling them out as well. Last Monday, Washington announced they signed goalie Braden Holtby to a two-year contract extension worth $3.7 million and have also signed defenseman John Erskine to a two-year contract extension worth $3.925 million with a $25,000 signing bonus.
Holtby, 23, was set to be a restricted free agent this summer and Erskine, 32, was headed for unrestricted free agency. He has been with the team since 2006. Only Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich and Mike Green have been in the NHL with Washington longer.
“We’ve made this city our home, the family, and kids go to school here,” Erskine said. “We enjoy it a lot here.”
Erskine said Caps general manager George McPhee and assistant general manager Don Fishman began negotiating with his agent, Pat Morris, three weeks ago. Unlike last season, when Erskine appeared in just 28 games and assumed his time with the Caps was short, he is now playing top-four defensive pair minutes and is working well with fellow defenseman John Carlson.
These were great moves by Washington. Holtby is obviously going to be the future between the pipes for the Caps and Erskine is playing hard nose, tough as nails old school hockey that the Capitals so desperately need right now.
On Saturday in Winnipeg, Holtby pitched a shutout and Erskine recorded his second assist of the season on the Caps first goal of the game scored by Matt Hendricks. The Caps sturdy defenseman also contributed 19-minutes and 28-seconds of ice time, while leading both teams with five blocked shots.
Mike Ribeiro continues to play lights on. The Caps leading scorer by eight points registered a goal and an assist for his eighth multi point game of the season. Traded to Washington by Dallas for Cody Eakin and Boston's 2nd round choice (previously acquired, Dallas selected Mike Winther) in 2012 Entry Draft, June 22, 2012, Ribeiro has been everything and more the Capitals were hoping to have in a top second line center.
The 32-year old native of is 12th in the NHL in scoring and tied for sixth with five other skaters with 17 assists so far this season. His seven goals are third on the Capitals behind Troy Brouwer (9) and Alex Ovechkin (8).
Five of Ribeiro’s goals have come on the power play, which has helped the Caps PP unit surge to fourth in the NHL this season after almost two seasons of futility with the extra man. He has 11 points in his last eight games and seems to be able to play on any line combination. On Saturday, he assisted on Matt Hendricks goal and scored a goal while playing on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Eric Fehr.
Of course, Braden Holtby is hot but like I have not mentioned that yet in this blog. So let’s take a different approach with a few fresh stats. You know about his third zero of the season but did you know all three of Holtby’s shutouts this season have come against Southeast Division opponents.
Lifetime, he is 8-3 with three shutouts, a 2.54 GAA and a .923 save pct. against Southeast Division foes. Holtby has recorded three of his six career shutouts in Saturday games. He is now 6-1-1 in eight career Saturday starts with a 1.49 GAA and a .949 save pct.
“Holtbeast” is also posting some solid numbers recently. Since allowing five goals in Florida on Feb 12, Holtby has faced 215 shots. He has stopped 202 of them. That is a .939 save percentage during that span as well as a 1.85goals against average. Since being pulled from a Feb. 27 start against the Flyers, Holtby has stopped 89 of 90 shots in his three starts in between.
When it is going bad, it’s very bad----just ask Jason Chimera. Chimmy, who has yet to light the lamp this season, after turning it on a career high 20 times last season must be as frustrated as any player in any sport after Jets goalie Ondrea Pavelec flat our robbed him on Saturday of his best scoring chance this season.
With the puck on the sweet black tape of the stick, Chimera had the Jets goalie down on his knees with a shot to fire and fire it Chimera did-----But Pavelec snagged it out of midair with his glove and sent Chimera skating to the corner shaking his head and still goalless on the season.
FOUR LINES WORTH OF STATS:
FIRST LINE STAT: The Washington Capitals claimed left wing Aaron Volpatti off waivers on Feb. 28 from Vancouver. Volpatti is the first player claimed off waivers by Washington since Marco Sturm was claimed from Los Angeles on Feb. 26, 2011. The Capitals’ last waiver claim from Vancouver occurred on Oct. 4, 2005, when they claimed goaltender Brent Johnson from the Canucks. Johnson spent the next four seasons with the Capitals.
HOW DID HE DO YOU ASK: Volpatti got into a first-period fight with Winnipeg’s Anthony Peluso (who is three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Volpatti), and the newest Capital skated seven shifts totaling 5:24 in ice time on the afternoon. Volpatti also registered one shot on goal and one hit for the afternoon’s work.
SECOND LINE STAT: The Capitals are now 13-7-2 in their last 22 contests against Winnipeg. Washington owns a .636 points percentage all-time against the Jets franchise, the fifth highest against any team in Capitals history. The Capitals have allowed just 2.44 goals per game against Winnipeg in their history, the seventh-lowest amount against any franchise.
THIRD LINE STAT: The Capitals currently own a record of 8-11-1 and went 6-6-0 during the month of February.
FOURTH LINE STAT: Here is breaking news; Mike Green is still out with an injury. According to Katie Carrera of the Washington Post, “Mike Green is still “not feeling 100 percent,” according to Coach Adam Oates, and there’s no real indication as to when the Capitals’ top defenseman might be ready to return to the lineup. He has missed four games this season with a groin injury and I would be willing to bet my house that he will not be on the ice Tuesday night.
Green only missed 60-percent of the season last year, 40 percent the year before---so it is only fitting that he has missed 20 percent of this one. Here is hoping that Green gets back soon because no matter how you feel about him, the Capitals are a better team when he is on the ice.
In better injury news, the same Post report stated Marcus Johansson’s recovery appears to be progressing. He was scheduled to have a test Monday today in order to be cleared for contact, Oates said.
“He’s going to have a test today, and he should be cleared,” Oates said, adding that Johansson looked “a lot better today. He looked like he had jump.”
Johansson has missed nine games with what the team will only describe as an upper-body injury, but he has been skating with the Capitals regularly for a little more than a week now. During the lockout, Johansson reportedly suffered a back injury while playing for BIK-Karlskoga.
UP NEXT: THE BOSTON BRUINS:
The Capitals and Bruins will renew acquaintances on Tuesday night for the first time since the two teams met in last year’s opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Capitals prevailed in seven games when Joel Ward scored in overtime to eliminate the then defending Stanley Cup Champs.
The series set playoff records in that all seven games were decided by a single goal and four of the seven were decided in overtime. There may still be a little unfinished business in terms of some physical play. You play that many games against the same team, you’re bound to not like them, “right wing Troy Brouwer said after Monday’s practice. “We’ve got some pretty good battles and some grudges against certain players. Because of the series last year, there might be some animosity here tomorrow.”
The Capitals also won three of four against Boston during the regular season last year. This year may be a different story and what a huge boost it could be to the Capitals if they could beat the Bruins who are have lost just three times in 19 games this season.
The B’s are 14-3-2 (30-pts) and have points (17) in nine of ten road games this season. As a team, the Bruins are among the leaders in most statistical categories. They have allowed just 2.16 goals per game, the fourth fewest in the NHL heading into Monday night’s games and have scored 2.90 goals per game to rank eighth in the NHL.
Ranked 22 in the NHL, the Bruins still cannot score on the power play but own the league’s No.1 ranked penalty-killing unit. Head coach Claude Julien’s team is also the best in the NHL on the red dot, winning 58-percent of their face offs. To put that into perspective, the Phoenix Coyotes are second, winning 53-perecent of the time.
The Capitals are ninth in the league wrestling 51.2 percent of their red dot draws.
As usual, the Bruins do not boast a prolific scorer but instead get contributions from many. Boston does have a single player in the league top 30 in scoring but instead poses seven players with 11 or more points this season.
Center Patrice Bergeron is leading the team in assists with 13 and points with 18. Bergeron has two goals and five assists during a four-game point’s streak for the Bruins and Tyler Seguin has goals in consecutive games. The annoying Brad Marchand leads Boston with 11 goals.
Now that Tim Thomas has been traded, Tuukka Rask has finally been handed over the reins---And he has not let his team down. Rask is tied for first in the NHL with 11 wins and is fourth with a 1.97 G.A.A. (goalies with at least 10 starts). Under the same criteria, Rask is fifth in the league with a .928 save percentage.
Speaking of goaltending, the Bruins will have to solve Braden Holtby, which they failed to do at critical times during the playoff series. Holtby was 4-3 with a 2.00 GAA and a .940 save pct. during that seven-game series last spring. He saw at least 30 shots in all seven games, and held the Bruins to one goal in four of the seven, all Washington wins.
Holtby’s Tuesday night start against the Bruins is his 10th straight. That matches a 10-game run Tomas Vokoun had as the Caps’ starting goaltender in Dec.-Jan. of last season and the last time a Caps goalie started more than 10 straight contests was a 16-game run with Olaf Kolzig between the pipes from Oct. 17 to Nov. 22, 2003. He was 4-11-0-1.
DOWN ON THE FARM:
Jeff Taffe scored two goals and added two assists, and Philipp Grubauer stopped all 20 shots he faced in a relief appearance, to help the HERSHEY BEARS defeat the AHL-leading Syracuse Crunch 5-3 on Sunday evening at GIANT Center for the team’s third consecutive win.
The BEARS won their third straight home game for the first time this season, and move into third place in the East Division and sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 28-21-3-5.
The HERSHEY BEARS hit the road for a pair of games against the Norfolk Admirals next weekend. The teams face off at Norfolk Scope on Friday and Saturday. The team returns home on Sunday, March 10 for a 5:00 PM faceoff against the Binghamton Senators.