by Kevin Klein
(feature photograph by Mitchell Layton, NHLI via Getty Images)
Were it not for the Washington Capitals’ stellar play on Verizon Center ice, their midseason outlook might be considerably bleaker than it currently is. The flipside of that, of course, is that if not for the Caps abysmal showings on the road, they may be one of the best teams in the NHL.
The Capitals entered Tuesday evening’s tilt against the 16-21-6 Islanders with an opportunity to sandwich two four-game winning streaks around a two-game skid out West. Momentum that could go, perhaps, a very long way.
Their recent successes haven’t just been about venue, however. There’s a formula to winning in the NHL, and for the Washington Capitals it starts with special teams play. Coming into the Islanders game, the Capitals boasted an impressive 11-4-0 record when committing fewer penalties than their opponent. Contrarily, they’re a modest 11-10-1 when taking more trips to the sin bin. So, by committing three penalties in the game’s opening frame, they did themselves no favors, and found themselves down 1-0 at first intermission, thanks to a strong finish by John Tavares on a pretty powerplay slap-pass setup.
Despite failing on their next two man-advantage opportunities, the Islanders had some even strength stores to tap, as P.A Parenteau took advantage of a Karl Alzner turnover and ripped it past John Carlson and Tomas Vokoun both to make it a 2-0 affair. They added another powerplay goal in the third for good measure, but they didn’t need anything more than Taveres’s first period marker, as Evgeni Nabakov notched his first shutout of the season, and the 301st win of his career. It was the first time the Capitals had been shut out in 43 games, dating back to last season’s finale.
Tomas Vokoun played well in his 10th consecutive start, but to be a winning goalie behind a 0 goal effort is a tall task indeed. Whether Michal Neuvirth will finally spell his countryman tomorrow remains in the air. On one hand, why take arguably the team’s best player off the ice? On the other, why run him into the ice? Vokoun’s longest consecutive start streak is 38 games, which he accomplished at the age of 26, in 2002-2003.
After the game Matt Hendricks was asked about an item of some speculation— tomorrow night’s reunion with Rene Bourque, the deliverer of an elbow which has kept Nicklas Backstrom in the pressbox, and created a hulking gap down the middle of Washington’s top line. Hendricks smirked— the smirk being something of a sore thumb in an otherwise solemn locker room— and stated that he had “no idea about that stuff”. Tomorrow night Rene Bourque will likely find out whether the words or the sly upturning of Hendricks’s lips held the truth.
Tomas Kundratek continued his role as a defensive stopgap, and seems to be adjusting to the role nicely. While not shouldering any special teams roles, save for 10 seconds on the penalty kill, Kundratek logged another 8:57 of ice time, and was on the ice for none of the Islanders’ three goals. Also not having been on the ice for a goal in any of his first three games in the NHL, it brings Kundratek’s total ice time to 38:35.
Tuesday night’s matchup with the Islanders was the fourth consecutive game during which Washington faced an opponent on the backend of consecutive games. Tomorrow they will reside on the other side of that coin. But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, especially after a loss. “It’s a chance to get right back at it,” Brooks Laich, who has now been held goalless in 10 consecutive games, said. “Same with what [the Islanders] went through. They played last night and lost and came in here a hungry team. For us, we will get on the plane tonight, travel [to Montreal] and get back at it tomorrow.”
Karl Alzner agreed with his teammate. “You couldn’t ask for a better situation than to get right back at it. And Montreal seems to be a building that we come out with a lot of energy, so hopefully that will be the case.” Dale Hunter, however, was not so ready to wield optimism. “After a loss it’s not good,” the coach delivered grimly. “So, we gotta go on the road. We don’t have a good record there. It’s a battle on the road.” The Capitals road record is 7-12-1.
But perhaps Laich and Alzner have the right of things. During a four game homestand the Capitals brought home six of eight points, enough to thrust themselves back into the thick of not only the playoff race, but also the battle for the division which they have won in each of the last four seasons. They’re already playing with assurance in front of the home crowd. It’s white-jersey hockey that needs to be improved if the Capitals want to cruise into the Spring with a head of steam. Their upcoming three game roadtrip is against 3 teams who are trending downward: the Canadiens (17-20-8), the Hurricanes (16-24-7), and the Penguins (4-6-0 in their last 10). If ever there were a time for a team to soothe its road ailments, it is now.
If you liked this article, give us a follow on twitter, and contribute to the war on workday productivity.