Over the past nine games the Washington Capitals have played their arch rivals twice (Pittsburgh), their closest competitors in the Southeast Division twice (Tampa Bay), another Southeast Division rival twice (Florida), a team fighting to hold onto a playoff spot (Montreal), a team fighting to get into a playoff spot (Carolina), and the best team in the league at the moment (Vancouver).
You could say that the last three weeks have been somewhat eventful.
The Caps get a change of pace in hosting the Ottawa Senators at Verizon Center this afternoon. Ottawa is not a rival (they’re in the Northeast Division), not fighting for a playoff spot (11 points out of eighth place), and are far from being the best team in the league (24 points behind Vancouver).
What the Senators are is a team that might be fighting for their coach’s continued employment…
"If we get fired, it's not failure; it's a midlife vocational assessment." – P.J. O’Roarke
The speculation on Clouston’s job ranges from the “it is widely believed” sort of lead to the more emphatic “Clouston must go” sort of statement.
"When I find an employee who turns out to be wrong for a job, I feel it is my fault because I made the decision to hire him." – Akio Morita
The swirl of speculation even goes so far as to question whether Bryan Murray will be re-upped as Senators’ general manager.
"In the end we are all sacked and it's always awful. It is as inevitable as death following life. If you are elevated there comes a day when you are demoted." – Alan Clark
But in the end, just about everyone in that line of work is informed that their services are no longer required. Whether Clouston will get that message might come down to how well his Senators fare against the struggling Capitals this afternoon.
Things were not always such. The Senators started the month of November with four straight wins, part of a six-wins-in-seven-games run that left them with an 8-6-1 record on November 9th. But then they took one in the teeth, courtesy of the Vancouver Canucks – a 6-2 beating at home. Starting with that game the Senators’ have been plummeting through the standings. Since their four-game winning streak they are 9-16-5 over their last 30 games and managed consecutive wins only once – wins over Nashville and Pittsburgh in the games immediately before and after Christmas. Since those wins, the Senators have lost seven of eight games (1-5-2), have been outscored 30-15, and were shut out twice. Overall, here are the numbers:
If the Caps are going to snap out of their offensive doldrums, this could be team against which it happens. First, number one goaltender Brian Elliott has not been on top of his game of late. He is winless in his last seven decisions (0-5-2), has a 3.83 goals against average and a .862 save percentage, and was pulled twice over that span. And it is not as if Elliott has been especially productive against the Caps over his career. He has a 4-1-0 lifetime record against Washington, but in compiling that win-loss mark he has a 3.86 goals against average and a .864 save percentage. He lost his only decision against the Caps this season, a 3-2 loss in Ottawa on December 19th.
Elliott’s ability to win games against the Caps stems from his receiving considerable goal support from his teammates. Not so these days. Here is an idea of how much the Senators have struggled on offense. Jason Spezza hasn’t played a game since December 26th and he is still third on the team in total scoring (20 points).
Daniel Alfredsson leads the Senators in scoring these days, but these things are relative. Alfredsson’s 14-13-27 line has him in a tie for 98th place in the NHL scoring rankings. He has been cold of late, going 3-2-5, minus-5 in his last 11 games. But the Caps might beware in this sense. Alfredsson has 11 of his 14 goals and 18 of his 27 points in 21 games on the road this season. Despite not having a point in either of the two games Ottawa played against the Caps so far this season, he is 32-28-60 in 52 career games against the Caps.
With Spezza out of the lineup, the next highest scoring forward on the club is Mike Fisher (11-7-18). But then again, he is 2-3-5, minus-6 in his last 15 games. He might want to imagine he was playing against Toronto, against which he is 3-1-4 this season. Against the Caps? No points in two games, but he is 9-9-18 in 30 career games against Washington.
If the Senators have reliable scoring, it comes more from their defense, with Erik Karlsson (8-18-26) and Sergei Gonchar (5-15-20) each with at least 20 points. Karlsson – a 20-year old with considerable promise – had a pair of goals and an assist against Pittsburgh on December 26th, but has not registered a goal since (he has three assists in his last eight games). He seems to play favorites, though. Against Montreal, Toronto, and Pittsburgh he is 4-7-11 in 11 games. Against the rest of the league he is 4-11-15 in 32 games. None of those points have come at the expense of the Caps in the two games against them this year.
Gonchar was brought to Ottawa to help on the power play, and he has been as advertised. His 3-12-15 leads the Senators in total power play points, and he is 12th among all NHL defensemen in power play points. But he has been on the ice for 42 of the 103 even-strength goals scored by opponents against Ottawa so far this season. He is a minus-16 for the season, and that is after a freakish plus-5 he put up against the Islanders in a 6-4 win last Thursday.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Ottawa: Chris Campoli
Who? Gonchar is a minus-16, and Eriksson is a minus-13, but it was Campoli who was the defenseman given a seat in the press box for the last two games for Ottawa. Maybe it was his minus-4 against Boston in his last game. For a guy who doesn’t contribute much on the offensive end (he is 1-6-7 this season), being on the ice for four goals against isn’t a way to endear yourself to your embattled coach. He will return to the lineup against Washington and will be counted upon to help keep the Caps’ offensive troubles from finding a solution against the Senators.
Washington: Mike Knuble
1. Find Your Inner Grinder. In the movie “Miracle,” Herb Brooks said, “You don't have enough talent to win on talent alone.” The Caps might take that to heart, because despite all their “talent” they are getting very little production. Find your inner grinder and get the ugly goal or three.
2. Gimme five. On five, that is. Only two teams have allowed more five-on-five goals than have the Senators (Tampa Bay and New Jersey). No team has allowed more even-strength goals of any number. Only the Islanders and Devils have a worse five-on-five goals scored to goals allowed ratio than does Ottawa. The Caps have to make hay while the sun shines at even strength.
3. Early Bird Special. The Caps are dead last in first period goals scored (28). The top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble have a total of six first period goals all season and are on a pace to finish with 11. Last season they had 35 such goals. Folks might talk about this or that reason for the Caps’ struggles on offense, but getting off to good starts – or the lack of it – says a lot about the problems they have had.
In the end, this game will say as much about the Caps as games against teams like Pittsburgh or Vancouver. In this instance, it will be a case of how effectively the Caps can put the Senators down and stand on their throats. The first two games against Ottawa this season were by no means easy – a pair of 3-2 wins, one coming in overtime. But we are getting to that point in the season where the Caps need to start looking like a contender, and Ottawa is sinking in the standings, a team for which there is as much attention focused on who is or will be behind the Senator bench as to what is happening on the ice. The Caps need to take advantage of that.
Caps 5 – Senators 1