The Washington Capitals wrap up their season series with the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday as well as their four-game road trip. The Capitals have a chance to split their four-game road swing and rub out some of the bad taste of an ugly 5-0 shutout loss at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday. Ottawa might be just the tonic for what ails the Caps, as it turns out. Washington is 16-5-3 in their last 24 meetings against the Senators. That includes a perfect 3-0-0 mark so far this season, taking a 2-1 decision on October 15th and a 3-2 overtime decision on December 3rd at Verizon Center. The Caps made it three-for-three with a 5-3 win over the Senators in Ottawa on December 7th.
It looked for a time a few weeks ago as if the Senators would sink out of the playoff race, having lost seven in a row (0-6-1) from January 21st through February 7th. Ottawa has righted the ship, though, having gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, including shutouts at Tampa Bay (4-0) and at the Islanders (6-0). The Senators have outscored opponents in the five games by a 23-9 margin, largely on the strength of scoring by Jason Spezza. In the five games Spezza has risen to fourth in the league in scoring (entering Tuesday night play) by going 7-7-14, plus-8, with five multi-point games in a row.
Not that is has been entirely The Jason Spezza Show. Ten different Senators have goals in the five games, and 15 different Senators have points. In all five games Ottawa scored the game’s first goal, and they outscored their opponents in the first period by a 7-2 margin. The Senators have displayed period balance in the five games, scoring seven, eight, and eight goals by period.
The big turnaround, though, might be that of goaltender Craig Anderson. When the Senators had their 0-6-1 streak to finish January and start February, Anderson was the goalie of record in all seven losses. He earned those decisions by posting a 3.84 goals against average and a .882 save percentage. He finished up the unfortunate run by lasting only 3:49 in a 3-1 loss to St. Louis, giving up two goals on four shots. He was then held out of the next game in favor of Alex Auld. After Auld won a 4-3 decision over Nashville to get the Senators moving in the other direction, Anderson is 3-0-1, 1.50, .957, with two shutouts in the last four games.
Here is how the teams compare, numbers-wise:
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2. Only three teams in the league have allowed more 5-on-5 goals than the Senators (Toronto, Tampa Bay, Chicago). No team has allowed more 4-on-4 goals (10, tied with Carolina).
3. Only Philadelphia has taken more minor penalties than the Senators this season. Only three teams have taken more majors (Philadelphia, Boston, New York Rangers). Only Detroit has taken more bench minors. Didn’t the league send these guys a rule book before the start of the season?
4. No team has allowed more power play goals at home than Ottawa (25, tied with Philadelphia). Only three teams have a worse home plus/minus (Florida, Columbus, New York Islanders). No team has allowed more goals overall at home than the Senators (95).
5. Ottawa is streaky. They have five separate streaks of at least three consecutive wins this season and four separate streaks of at least three consecutive losses.
2. In those six games the Caps have five goals scored by players names “Alex” (three for Semin, two for Ovechkin), four goals scored by defensemen, and a goal by Brooks Laich.
3. Speaking of the Alexes, both Ovechkin and Semin have four goals in their last nine games. They have a total of five goals from the rest of the forwards combined in those nine games.
4. The difference a year makes. After 59 games last season, the Caps were 30-19-10 (70 points); this year they are 29-25-5 (63 points).
5. Only three teams have fewer power play goals on the road than the Caps (Tampa Bay, Buffalo, and St. Louis). Only four teams have allowed more power play goals on the road than Washington (Colorado, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Columbus). On the power play, they are 1-for-27 in their last nine road games (3.7 percent).
The Peerless Players to Ponder
Ottawa: Erik Karlsson
Erik Karlsson leads all NHL defensemen in scoring by a wide margin. His 12-45-57 in 60 games is 17 points better than Brian Campbell’s 3-37-40 for the Florida Panthers. His name is creeping up in Norris Trophy conversation. Funny how that works. High scoring defenseman averaging almost a point a game but who trails only 21 other defensemen in the league in goals scored against while on ice. Sound familiar? Karlsson has been on a roll lately. In the 4-0-1 run for the Senators, he is 4-5-9, plus-8, with two game-winning goals. Can he win a Norris Trophy with this kind of offensive performance? After watching Mike Green fall short despite consecutive seasons of scoring more than a point a game and going plus-24 and plus-39, it would not seem likely. But it might be fun to watch.
Washington: Mathieu Perreault
Since he had a hat trick against Boston on January 24th, Mathieu Perreault has two goals in his last 11 games, none in his last six. As if it needs saying by this point, with Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup, players like Perreault are going to have to step up and contribute more offensively while playing a smart two-way game as long as Backstrom is out. Perreault was the player who was the big factor when the Caps halted their eight-game losing streak in Ottawa last season, netting a pair of goals in the second period of a 3-2 win. The Caps went on to finish the rest of the season 29-11-7 after that win. The Caps could use a little bit of history repeating itself.
Keys, “Rocky Balboa” edition:
1. “Ya know they always say if you live in one place long enough, you are that place.” The Caps have been living on the margin of playoff eligibility for months now, and they have the look of an also-ran. Right now, they are “that place.” If they are to move out of the neighborhood, they can’t wait for moves from the front office. It has to start here.
2. “The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!” The Caps are fine with the “sunshine and rainbows,” but when hit with adversity, they have not shown much fight in them lately. If they can’t fight through that, they have little hope of putting together any streak of success. They simply do not have the depth at the moment to be dominating teams; they have to scratch out wins.
3. “You know, I think you try harder when you're scared... That's when it's worked best for me.” If the Caps are not scared of missing the playoffs, they should be concerned. Seriously concerned. Instead of denying it or cowering in its presence, maybe they need to embrace that fact and learn how to win when things are not going as well as they – or anyone else – would have predicted for this season.
In the end, here is the bad news. Of the ten goals scored by the Caps in the season series with Ottawa to date, Nicklas Backstrom has a hand in four of them (3-1-0). But while Ottawa has been hot of late, this is a team that has a lot of weak points. And, goalie Craig Anderson has not been especially effective against Washington. He is 4-5-1, 2.81, .916, with one shutout in his career against the Caps, but he lost his only decision this season, getting lit up for four goals on 39 shots (three of the goals coming in a span of six shots in the third period) in a 5-3 Washington win on December 7th. The Caps are probably going to find themselves underdogs in just about every road game from here on in, given their record to date. But this is a winnable game for them. You might say at this point that it is a “must-winnable” game for them.
Capitals 4 – Senators 3