After a 10 day Olympic break, the Washington Capitals hit the ice at Kettler Ice Plex on Wednesday afternoon for practice without the five players who were still competing in the Olympics as of this afternoon (Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Semyon Varlamov, Tomas Fleischmann, and Nicklas Backstrom). Before Washington went on break they followed a club record 14 game winning streak with three losses in a row on the road, although one defeat (Montreal) came in overtime and another (St. Louis) occurred in the shootout. Boudreau blamed the losses on “sloppy” play, and rightfully so, but injuries also played a role in the last three games. Jason Chimera, who injured a groin and missed all three defeats, practiced today but the Caps coach had him exit early in an attempt to get him 100% for the Buffalo Sabres next Wednesday, March 3rd, when the Capitals resume their NHL schedule. In addition, Mike Green said he was totally healed from his bumps and bruises while his fellow defensemen Tom Poti and Shaone Morrisonn all appear recovered from their ailments.
Without the full squad Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau did a lot of drills and mini-games followed by 15 minutes of skating to close out the session. Many of the players, who didn’t skate at all during the break, were gassed by the end of what the 2007-08 Jack Adams Trophy deemed an easier practice then they will face on Thursday. Overall the mood in the Washington dressing room following today’s session was very loose and relaxed.
“It’s good to be back, feels good to be back around the guys here and reminisce on where everybody went, it’s good to get back on the ice and get started again,” said Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz about today’s return from the break, “Today was just trying to get the legs and mind back and in a hockey mode here and beginning each day we are going to ramp it up a bit harder and try and get back to the fundamentals and go from there,” added #55 on what he sees the team accomplishing with practices on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before heading to Buffalo.
Even when the Caps were in the midst of that winning streak, Boudreau, in his pressers with the media, said he warned the players about “bad habits.” I asked the man nicknamed “Sarge” what he thought the head coach meant by “sloppy play.”
“Just kind of the small details, our defensive zone, our forecheck, maybe just guys being out of position or waiting an extra second before making their decision, it is kind of stuff like that and we were missing a couple of guys,” stated the man who is second in the NHL in plus/minus at +37 (trails Ovechkin, who is at +43).
One area the Capitals are hoping to improve on before the playoffs is their penalty killing. Currently they rank 25th overall in the league at 79.1% but a look inside the numbers shows quite a disparity between their ability to do so at home versus away. In DC the Caps are 4th in the NHL killing 98 of 112 (87.5%) shorthanded situations while away from the friendly confines of the Verizon Center they are 29th overall, stopping only 99 of 137 (72.4%) chances. So why the big difference between home and away?
The Caps have played 29 home games and 33 on the road and their average number of shorthanded situations per game (3.86/gm at home vs. 4.15/gm on the road) doesn’t shed any light on the disparity. At home the Capitals players, when taking face-offs, can place their stick down second giving them an advantage on winning draws, which allows the team to clear the puck right away and kill precious time, so that might be a factor. However, I find it hard to believe that alone is the reason for the difference. Playing in the Phone Booth with the crowd behind them has to help some too, but still, the home vs. away PK percentage delta is certainly an eye opener. I spoke with both Schultz and forward Boyd Gordon about the penalty killing and if they had any ideas on the reasons why it was so much better at home.
“I don’t know what it is, we’ve talked about that and we are doing the right things it’s just that sometimes they get some lucky bounces, our system is put in place well and some nights we are good and some nights we are bad, but I think we are working hard out there, doing whatever we can, like blocking shots and stuff,” said Schultz.
“I wish I knew, it’s one of those things where it can’t be, there shouldn’t be that much discrepancy. I mean if you want to win in the playoffs you obviously can’t be really good in one place and terrible in the next, we’d like to be good at both, home and away, but it is one of those things that we have to be better on and we know that our power play is so good that if we can shut down the other team’s power play we have a better chance of winning,” said Gordon.
“I think in PK it helps to win the draw, obviously, and it helps tremendously to not let the other team get set up. Before the break obviously our numbers weren’t that good but we seem to have stretches where it is really good for 6, 7 games and then we’ll have that one game where we give up 3 or 4 and that just kills the numbers, so if we can just keep away from having those really bad games we’d be more consistent and alot better off, we’ll be great for 6 games and then the Rangers go 4 for 7 on us and it just kills the percentages” added the 2002 first round draft pick.
Despite the issues with killing penalties on the road, Washington still has an insurmountable 13 point lead in the Eastern Conference plus a one point lead over the San Jose Sharks for the President’s Trophy, which is awarded to the team with the best record at the end of the regular season. Improving their game and being first overall is something that Schultz says will motivate the team over the last 20 games.
“I think getting a good foundation for our fundamentals and our system. Be really sharp in playing them each game. We want to be first in the league. That’s been a goal of ours and anytime you are first place that is where you want to be,” said #55 when discussing the team’s focus areas for the stretch run.