The Washington Capitals try for the third time to reach 38 wins on Sunday as they host the Minnesota Wild at Verizon Center. It is a bit late in the day for that, seeing as how the Caps hit the 38-win mark on March 9th last year, February 2nd in the 2009-2010 season (really?), and February 22nd in 2008-2009. In the 2007-2008 season, when the Caps embarked on a furious finish to make the playoffs, they hit the 38 win mark on, wait for it… March 25th, in a 3-2 Gimmick win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
Now the Caps try to repeat this little slice of history when they take on a team that, let’s face it, is not that good. Not that the season lacked promise for the Wild. On December 10th, Minnesota defeated the Phoenix Coyotes, 4-1, to go 20-7-3. They sat atop the Northwest Division and the Western Conference, the first team to hit the 10-win mark at home and on the road. They had a five-point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks for the conference lead. They were on a seven-game winning streak.
Then things took a turn. Minnesota gave up a 1-0 lead at Winnipeg and lost, 2-1, on a late goal by the Jets (they seem to do that). They would lose again, and again, and again. Their losing streak reached eight games (0-5-3, all of the extra time losses coming in the Gimmick) before they finally ended the string in a 4-3 win over Edmonton. Not that it provided much relief. It was a mere rest stop on a road to oblivion. Since that seven-game winning streak and the high-water mark of their season, the Wild are 11-26-7. They have won consecutive games in regulation time just once in that span (they have two other two-game streaks, both a product of trick shot wins in the second game).
The Wild come into this game having won one game in regulation this month, a 2-0 shutout of the Vancouver Canucks. Overall they are 3-7-1, including a 1-3-1 record on the road. And it is not as if the Wild have been playing teams especially close. Only three of the eight losses were of the one-goal variety (including a 5-4 trick shot loss to Montreal). On the other hand they have a 6-0 loss at the hands of Detroit and a 7-1 loss to Colorado.
Offense is a problem. Eighteen goals in 11 games in March, and they have been shut out three times. They started the month going 0-for-18 on their power play over seven games before getting power play goals in each of their next three games. Overall the Wild are 3-for-31 in March (9.7 percent).
Not that the Minnesota defense has been much to get excited about. The Wild have allowed 36 goals in 11 games (3.27 goals per game) and have allowed four or more in five of those games. The penalty kill is only 27-for-36 in March (75.0 percent). But the Wild seem to have come out of their funk a bit lately, having won two of their last three games and getting back to “Wild” hockey, as it were, with only five goals allowed in the three games and one shutout of their own. Here is how the two teams compare as they head into this game:
(click pic for larger image)
2. As you might expect, Minnesota has fewer wins by three or more goals than any team in the NHL (four). They have not had one since a 5-2 win against Dallas on January 21st,and that one happens to be their only such win since their 4-1 win over Phoenix on December 10th that was the last win in their seven-game winning streak that was the high point of their season.
3. If there is an odd number for the Wild it is this – three. The Wild have the third best record in the league when trailing after the first period (12-18-1). Of course, no team has as much as a .500 winning percentage when trailing after 20 minutes.
4. Minnesota has only 151 goals scored this season. That total is fewer than the 5-on-5 goals scored by five other teams
5. Miscellaneous stuff…Minnesota has 692 blocked shots on the road, by far the most in the league. That total is 69 more than the New York Islanders (a 10 percent difference)… only two teams in the league have had more overtime power plays than the Wild (four)… only four teams have spent more time killing penalties on the road than Minnesota… no team in the league is out-shot by a larger margin that the Wild on a per-game basis (5.2 shots per game, 1.5 per game more than Edmonton).
2. The Caps’ 5-3 win over Detroit was their first win over a Western Conference opponent since they beat Calgary, 3-1, on January 3rd. OK, they have played only four other teams (Chicago, Los Angeles, and two against San Jose).
3. Jeff Halpern is currently tied for fourth in the league in faceoff winning percentage (58.3 percent, with Manny Malhotra). You would have to go to page three of the NHL.com leader rankings to find the next Cap (at least the next one not on injured reserve). Brooks Laich is tied for 66th (48.3 percent).
4. Only two teams in the league have had fewer power play opportunities at home than Washington (109). At their home power play conversion rate, if they had as many opportunities as Philadelphia (158), they would have ten more goals. In six home games in March the Caps have yet to have more than two power play opportunities in any game. They are 0-for-8 at home over six home games in the month. They are 0-for-22 on the power play at home over their last nine games and have not had a power play goal at home since Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin each had one in a 3-2 Gimmick loss to Winnipeg on February 9th.
5. The perfect run is over. The Caps were one of only two teams in the NHL to have an unblemished record when leading after 40 minutes (22-0-0, with Boston at 28-0-0). The overtime loss to Winnipeg on Friday dropped the Caps to 22-0-1. They are one of nine teams not to have lost a game in regulation when leading after two periods.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Minnesota: Dany Heatley
Dany Heatley leads the Wild with 21 goals. That is tied for 69th in the league. It happens to be the lowest goal total to lead a team – Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog broke the tie with his 22nd goal on Saturday night. There are 14 teams in the league with at least three players with more goals than Heatley’s team-leading total for Minnesota. The Western Conference seems not to have agreed with Heatley’s scoring results. In seven seasons in the Eastern Conference with Atlanta and Ottawa, Heatley averaged 42-46-88 per 82 games. Since going west, first with San Jose and now with Minnesota, he is averaging 30-37-67 per 82 games. Against the Caps he is 12-23-35 in 32 career games.
Washington: Mike Green
In a way, Mike Green might be the canary in the coal mine for the Caps, both good and bad (if such a thing could be said, seeing that the canary doesn’t usually come out of this very well). First, for those who think the news of Nicklas Backstrom being cleared for practice signals either: a) that he will be joining the lineup soon, or b) that when he does he will be productive right away; look at Green. In 15 games since returning from surgery and rehabilitation, Green has a scoring line of 0-1-1, even, in 18 games. Even if one accounts for a different role for Green under Dale Hunter than he had under Bruce Boudreau, his offensive output has lagged. On the other hand, if Green can start chipping in here and there, it could be the difference down the stretch as the Caps try to outlast Buffalo and Winnipeg for the last playoff spot in the East.
1. Find consistency. In a period, in a game, on the schedule. The Caps come into this game having lost four of five after winning four in a row. They get out to a big lead and cough it up. They pound pucks at a goalie early and go into a shell late. Playing defensive hockey with a lead does not mean treating the offensive zone as if it is radioactive. Just be smart. Push the puck deep, put pressure on it. Which means…
2. No silly high-risk chances. Minnesota is a team that is going to struggle scoring goals under normal circumstances. If the Caps don’t make poor judgments with the puck, Minnesota would not appear to have the fire power to get goals with much frequency.
3. “Coast” is not a gear. Consider this string of numbers… three, two, three, three, zero, zero, three. Those are the goal totals for the Caps at home over their last seven games. Two goals a game is not going to do it. They have scored a first period goal and taken a lead in each of their last four home games but have won only two of them. If these are like “playoff” games, then play them like playoff games.
In the end, you have to wonder about a team that just does not display much in the way of a killer instinct or much consistency in giving a 60-minute effort, even after 75 games and even when their playoff eligibility is in jeopardy. If the Caps play to form, they will get out to a lead in this game and give it back when they start looking ahead to Tuesday’s matchup with Buffalo that could mean their season (they have had leads in each of their last three games and lost two of them). Or maybe they will wake up and realize that there are only seven games left in the season… seven games. About a playoff series length of time.
Capitals 3 – Wild 1