Of Backstrom, Semin, Swift Starts and Blocked ShotsPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
The Capitals had a Friday practice at HP Pavillion as they get ready to start a two-game Western trip against the Sharks here on Saturday night. Saturday’s game will be Washington’s first since a 3-1 home ice win over the Calgary Flames on Tuesday. For the Sharks, Saturday will be their third game in four nights. Washington center Nicklas Backstrom was the recipient of an egregious elbow to the head from Calgary’s Rene Bourque midway through the third period of Tuesday’s game. Backstrom took a couple shifts after, but also missed a couple of shifts near game’s end. He has been evaluated daily since then, and missed the start of Friday’s practice because of one of those evaluations. The Capitals’ leading scorer, Backstrom said he believes he is good to go for Saturday’s game with the Sharks, but also mentioned that the final decision does not rest with him. “I feel pretty good today,” says Backstrom. “But it’s up to the doctors. You’ve got to ask [head athletic trainer Greg Smith] about that. “I feel pretty good, actually. I think I am ready to go. That’s my thoughts.” Caps winger Alexander Semin missed Tuesday’s game with the Flames because of an upper body injury. According to coach Dale Hunter, Semin is available to play against the Sharks. “Yeah,” says Hunter. “He’s ready to go now.” Semin has five goals – half his total for the 2011-12 season – and nine points in his last seven games. It’s hard to imagine him not getting a sweater for Saturday’s game. The Caps are facing a pair of hot teams on this trip in the Sharks and the Kings, and Washington has held the lead for only about 30 minutes of the 425 minutes of road hockey it has played under Hunter. Getting an early lead is high on the Capitals’ Saturday agenda; they haven’t owned a lead in San Jose’s building since 1998, a span of seven games. “Every time you get the first goal it’s a good feeling,” says Caps center Marcus Johansson. “It gets the other team to be more offensive and try to open up their game. It’s a big thing every game, no matter who you’re playing. The first goal is important.” In Hunter’s 16 games behind the Washington bench, the team that has scored first has won 13 times. The Capitals are 9-6-1 in those games. The Caps are 3-3-1 on the road since Hunter took over, but they’re just 7-10-1 on the road this season. “I think the difference if you look at it more closely,” says Caps center Brooks Laich, “is special teams. Our power play on the road is only about 11% and our penalty kill I don’t think is quite at 80 [percent]. You look at the game against Calgary, a couple minutes into the game we get a power play goal and it sets the tone for the game. We haven’t been getting that on the road, which is something we have to start getting especially against good hockey teams out here.” Washington has won four straight games, and the Caps have registered 20 or more blocked shots in each of those four victories. In those four games, the Capitals have had eight, 13, 12 and 15 different players, respectively, record at least one blocked shot in the contest. “It’s a tough part of the game,” notes Laich. “But if you want to be a winner, it’s a part of the game you have to embrace. There are going to be times when the other teams get a look [at the net], and it’s an act of desperation and sacrifice to get a block. When you do it, it’s very uplifting to the rest of the team. “I can think back through this four-game streak, there are a couple of times that Karl Alzner laid out in front of heavy shooters to block shots. There are other guys that do it, too. Roman Hamrlik I think leads our team in blocked shots. He blocked one off the arse the other day, too. It’s not a fun part of the game, but it’s one of those things that adds up to victories.” As early hockey “sabermetricians” pointed out two decades ago, teams with high numbers of blocked shots and hits usually have those high numbers because they’re spending too much time playing without the puck. That argument could have some merit in Washington’s case. The Caps have exceeded 30 shots on goal just four times in Hunter’s 16 games as coach, and they’ve had fewer than 30 shots on goal in each of their last nine games. The current streak of games with fewer than 30 shots on net is Washington’s longest since it went 10 straight games without getting 30 shots from March 13-April 3, 2004.
It’s been four nights since Calgary forward Rene Bourque blatantly flapped an elbow to the head of Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. Although the Caps’ center skated a couple more shifts in that Tuesday game, he also missed his last few shifts of the night and did not participate in Washington’s