Coming off of their worst performance of the season, the Washington Capitals head into back to back contests with the New Jersey Devils this weekend looking to regain the effort and results that saw them race out to a 7-0 record to begin the 2011-12 campaign. Since that red hot start the team has gone 2-4. Game one is at “The Rock” on Friday night with Saturday’s tilt at the Verizon Center. The Devils are 7-5-1 overall and have won three games in a row.
The Caps are currently second in the NHL in goals per game averaging 3.77 (behind the Flyers) while the Devils are 23rd in the leauge at 2.31 goals per game. Washington’s problems have mostly come on the back end and they are allowing 2.92 goals per game (22nd in the NHL) while New Jersey is only yielding 2.69 (15th in the NHL).
New Jersey’s scoring leaders are the familiar Patrick Elias (13 points in 13 games), Ilya Kovachuk (9 points in 11 games) and Zach Parise (8 points in 13 games). Parise is back after suffering an early season knee injury last fall that wiped out the majority of his 2010-11 season. [FRIDAY UPDATE: Kovalchuk is out for the weekend with a lower body injury.] On defense, new coach Peter DeBoer is relying heavily on Swedish rookie Adam Larsson, the 4th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The young man, who will turn 19 on Saturday, is leading the Devils defense in ice time logging 23:37 a night. New Jersey also has veterans Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov plus underrated Andy Greene on the blue line. In goal, 39 year old Martin Brodeur has won his last two starts after battling an upper body injury for most of the early part of the season. The other net minder is 38 year old journeyman Johan Hedberg, who is 5-3-1 this season.
After Tuesday’s clunker against the Stars, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau put his club through a grueling work out on Wednesday, which in hockey is affectionately known as the “bag skate.” Simply put, the Washington bench boss was disgusted with the lack of effort from his crew in their previous game and made them pay for it the next day. The energy was not there at all from the Capitals against a good Dallas team and they were beaten soundly. In addition to the lack of intensity, the Caps continued a recent pattern of poor d-zone coverage and displayed an inability to move the puck successfully out of their own end on numerous occassions. As chronicled here in this blog, the Mike Green ankle injury is a big one. #52 is Washington’s best defensemen and he has been called, for good reason, the “One Man Breakout.” There is a solid chance that “Game Over Greenie” will return on Friday, he participated in practice on both Wednesday and Thursday. His place in the lineup hopefully will help a struggling Roman Hamrlik, who has been on the ice for more goals against than any other Capitals defenseman.
In order for the Capitals to win, whether Green is in the lineup or not, they need to get back to the type of hockey that works best for their personnel. That recipe for success is a commitment to getting the puck deep in their opponents end, then using their physical size in the cycle game down low to wear out the opposition. Boudreau has four good lines but on Tuesday the Caps forwards acted like the Stars defensemen had a case of the plague and failed to take the body like they need to do to generate chances. Alexander Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer are at their best with Nicklas Backstrom (19 points in 13 games) when they are playing physical. That top line, if paired together, needs to get back to that type of effort. Alexander Semin has been downright horrible in his last eight games and he must get more involved. He has played the “easy game” over that stretch, failing to go into traffic and take a hit or outwork defenders with his size and skill on the wall. You’ll know pretty quickly if the Caps are focused because you will see the puck going north-south instead of those lazy cross ice passes at the opponents blue line that often leads to big trouble.
For the Caps, I imagine the goaltending duties will be split this weekend. Michal Neuvirth was okay on Tuesday while Tomas Vokoun had a nightmare last start in Long Island on Saturday, allowing three softies.
Washington’s power play is ranked third in the league clicking at 25% while the penalty killing is 20th at 78.7%. Given the depth and size of the Washington squad, there is no doubt that they are at their best in five on five situations so it is imperative that the Caps move their feet and not take the lazy stick infractions that have been a problem over the last six contests.