By the time the clock tolls midnight tonight, the Washington Capitals could be in first place in the Southeast Division. It would be the first time the Caps held the top spot in the Southeast since November 18th. But to do that, the Caps have to get past the Carolina Hurricanes this afternoon. The Caps have accomplished that feat twice already this season – a 4-3 overtime win in the season opener at Verizon Center and a 5-1 decision in Carolina on November 4th.
The loss to Washington on November 4th dropped Carolina to .500 at 5-5-3. It is the last time so far this season that the Hurricanes were at .500. Since then they are 11-18-4. Worse, they are 3-9-2 on the road. But here is the odd quirk in the Hurricanes’ record. Of the seven games they have won since December 15th, five of them have come against teams in their respective conference playoff-eligible group, including wins against Vancouver and Boston. Carolina can, from time to time, scare up a big effort against the big teams, even if their overall numbers do not look especially fear-inducing:
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The numbers paint a picture something other than pretty for Carolina. In no general category do they rank higher than 20th save for scoring, and even there they hang on to the last spot in the top half of the rankings. They are being outscored on the road by more than a goal per game for the season.
2. Carolina has the worst record in the league when being outshot by their opponent (6-15-4), although they have won their last two games when allowing more shots than they take (Tampa Bay, Boston).
3. Only one goalie in the league has played more than 2,000 minutes, has a goals against average over 3.00, and has a save percentage under .905: Cam Ward (2,250, 3.09, .902).
4. Eric Staal is 2-1-3 in the two games against the Caps so far this season. He also has been on the ice for five of the nine goals Washington scored in the two games (four of the six even strength goals). Perhaps he can take solace in the fact that Jamie McBain was on the ice for four of the five goals scored by Washington in the 5-1 Caps win in November. But there is this, too. Only seven of 813 skaters having dressed so far this season have a worse plus-minus on the road than Staal (minus-12), and he is last overall (minus-21).
5. Carolina has allowed more third period goals than any team in the league – 65. Their allowing 1.41 goals per game in the third period is not too far off Tuukka Rask’s league leading 1.59 goals against per 60 minutes for Boston.
2. The Caps have played only two games against the Hurricanes so far this season, but they have points from 15 different skaters in the two wins. And, the nine goals they have in the two games come from nine different players.
3. You probably would not be surprised to know that Nicklas Backstrom is tied for the team lead with 14 even strength assists. You might be surprised to know that the player with whom he is tied is John Carlson.
4. The Caps have done a pretty good job of spreading around penalty killing responsibilities. Through 42 games, the Caps are averaging 5:38 in shorthanded ice time per game. No Cap is averaging more than half that amount (Karl Alzner leads with 2:39), only four Caps average more than two minutes, and 14 different players (including six defensemen) are averaging at least 45 seconds.
5. Troy Brouwer was displaying a certain efficiency in shooting before his hat trick against Tampa Bay on Friday. He was 11-for-66 (16.7 percent) going into that game. Three goals on three shots later, and he is the only Caps with a shooting percentage over 20 percent for the season (20.3 percent on 14-for-69 shooting). He ranks seventh in the league in shooting efficiency.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Carolina: Justin Faulk
Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen had knee surgery on Janaury 3rd and was expected to take four weeks to recuperate. In the meantime, the ice time leader on the blue line for the Hurricanes is Justin Faulk (22:03 per game for the season). A lot of responsibility for a youngster who will not celebrate his 20th birthday until March 20th. He had been struggling on the defensive side of the ledger, putting up a combined minus-4 in seven games from December 27th through January 10th. But in his last two games he has a goal and an assist, and is a plus-4 in two Carolina wins. He is tied for the team lead among defensemen in power play points (2-4-6, with Jamie McBain).
Washington: Alexander Semin
Caps fans have seen “Good Sasha” lately in an important respect. He has drawn only one minor penalty in more than 137 minutes of ice time covering eight games. Add to that the fact that Semin is 3-5-8, plus-4 in those games, and that is a good thing indeed. But the important thing here might be that penalty number. The Hurricanes are a poor team at 5-on-5 (27th in the league) but somewhat better with the man advantage (20th overall, 16th on the road). Stay out of the box.
1. Get a lead. In a league where it is tough to win when you trail in games, Carolina is an especially poor team at coming from behind – 26th when allowing the first goal, 28th when trailing at the first intermission. Add to that, Carolina is playing their second game in less than 24 hours, and the Caps need to jump on these guys early.
2. Play it clean. Carolina has only 16 power play opportunities in their last nine games. They have converted seven of them (43.8 percent). The lack of opportunities has had an effect, in spite of the efficiency. Carolina has killed off only 22 of 30 shorthanded situations in those nine games (73.3 percent), leaving them a minus-1 on special teams in those nine games.
3. Shoot smart. Carolina goalie Cam Ward (should he get the call in the second half of a back-to-back) seems to thrive on in-game work. When facing 34 or more shots per game he has a 2.89 goals against average and a .921 save percentage (compared to 3.09, .902 overall). Only three times in 15 such games does he have a save percentage lower than .910. Pounding shots is not necessarily the path to winning against Ward. Don’t be cute, be smart.
In the end, the pressure on the Caps in this one is the kind of pressure that manifests itself as a product of underperforming for much of the season. They face an opponent they not only should beat, but must beat given their tenuous hold on eighth place in the East (they own tie breakers over Pittsburgh). Carolina, for two games at least, is playing as well as they have since beating Boston twice and Buffalo for their only three-game winning streak of the season in October. This is one game in which the Caps need to get off to a good start so that Carolina might remember they are playing that second game in less than 24 hours. Given each of Carolina’s last two road losses have come by the same score, why not a third time?
Capitals 5 – Hurricanes 2