Washington started its season-long four-game road trip with a 2-1 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. The Caps did a lot of good things in that game against the Penguins; they scored first, they stymied the Pens’ high-octane offense, and they kept Sidney Crosby’s line from scoring a goal for the first time in 14 games.
What they couldn’t do was keep the Pens from extending their winning streak to 10 straight games. The Caps got no points to show for their good efforts on Tuesday, and points are what they are most in need of right now.
With only 19 games remaining, Washington is still nestled in 14th place in the Eastern Conference standings. The Caps trail a cluster of eighth-place clubs by seven points and they are nine points in back of Winnipeg for the top spot in the Southeast Division.
Speaking of Winnipeg, that’s where the Caps will play their next two games. Washington is 4-9-1 on the road this season, but they put together a sparkling road game the last time they were here, on March 2. In that game, the Caps played well and they got the results they needed and desired, a 3-0 victory over the Jets.
The Jets came into that March 2 game having scored a goal in the first five minutes in five of their six previous games. Washington weathered the storm early, scratched out a couple of goals and left town with two points. They’re hoping a similar effort will have similar results tonight and tomorrow as they face the Jets twice in their building on consecutive nights.
“I think the first element was we handled the crowd,” says Oates of the Caps’ March 2 performance. “It’s a pretty tough environment in here out of the gate and the guys responded very well. It was one of the better games we had at being willing to win 1-0 in the game. It was 1-0 after two periods, both teams had chances but not too many and we stuck together for 60 minutes and got a couple [of goals] late.”
“Our game looked very clean and controlled,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich of that March 2 victory over the Jets. “One thing we did do was stay out of the penalty box. That’s a big part of our game. And we were able to not give them a whole lot of Grade A [chances]. They had 35 or 36 shots, but they were all from the outside. But we have to duplicate that – have that effort and that level of execution, that level of discipline and that will go a long way for us tonight.”
Laich returned to the Caps lineup for the first time this season in the Pittsburgh game. On Thursday in Winnipeg, the Caps hope that defenseman Mike Green will be back in the lineup for the first time in three weeks. Green has been sidelined with a lower body injury but has pronounced himself fit to play.
Oates says the Caps will dress seven defensemen for warm-ups tonight, but only six will play and a decision on Green’s ability to go will be made then. If Green does play, Washington must make a roster move. Including Green, the Caps currently have seven defensemen on the roster.
A roster move involving a forward makes more sense. The Caps are carrying three extra forwards at the moment in Joey Crabb, Aaron Volpatti and Wojtek Wolski. Wolski has played one of the team’s last five games, Volpatti has played two and Crabb three of those five contests.
The Jets have scored 79 goals this season, and 32 of those (or 40.5%) have come from Winnipeg’s top forward trio of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler.
“Obviously limiting their space,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward, of what Washington did to limit the Jets the last time the Caps were here. “They’ve got a couple of good skaters over there. If we can play our structured strategy of getting pucks in deep, I think that’s going to be key, as normal. They’ve got [defenseman Dustin] Byfuglien back there and he does a lot and creates a lot on the back end. If we can slow him up a little bit, that can kind of slow the other guys at going at their pace.”
Washington had strong run of hockey over 28 days from Feb. 9 through March 7, posting an 8-3 record and averaging nearly 3.5 goals per game. Since then however, the Caps are just 2-5 in their last seven games, and they’ve exceeded three goals in game just once in those seven contests.
“We’ve been playing some decent hockey at times,” says Ward. “It’s just a matter of connecting and capitalizing. We’ve got to score goals. We’ve got to put some pucks in the back of the net and give ourselves a chance to win more games.”
Even after they play these next two games in Winnipeg, the Caps must play four of their next five games on the road. They need a couple of wins against the Southeast leader, and they’d love to get them without going to overtime.
“We have to be as desperate as you’ve ever seen us,” says Laich. “That’s the situation it’s in. But we feel we’re a good hockey team. Some people might count us out, but we still have a lot to say about that.”