March 8 vs. Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center
Time: 10:30 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Washington
Radio: FAN 106.7, Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 37-22-7
Los Angeles Kings 36-25-5
Washington's three-game journey through California continues on Thursday night in Los Angeles where the Caps will face the Kings. The City of Angels has been hellish for the Caps over the last decade plus; Washington's last win here came on Dec. 14, 2005. The Capitals are 0-5-2 in their last seven trips to L.A, scoring two or fewer goals in six of those seven contests.
The Caps' journey through California got off to an inauspicious start on Tuesday when Washington suffered a 4-0 whitewashing at the hands of the Ducks in Anaheim. The Capitals went shorthanded in the game's first minute, were down a goal in the second minute, down by two goals after one period, and down by three goals early in the second period as Anaheim chased Washington goaltender Braden Holtby after he permitted three goals against on just nine shots from the Ducks.
"Absolutely in the first period," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, asked when Tuesday's game got away from Washington. "Turnovers and then obviously they got up 2-0 there. After that, I thought maybe they played on the result. When they got it to 3-0, they were just playing good defensively and we were just chasing. So that was a tough one for us, but you've just got to move on."
Washington may need to move on from Holtby for a while, as the goaltender's current slump is easily the longest of his NHL career. He was pulled for the fourth time in his last 11 starts on Tuesday, and he has permitted at least one goal in the first period of 13 straight starts. Ten of those first-period goals were the first goal of the game, and 10 of them were scored before the seven-minute mark of the first period.
Philipp Grubauer, who came on in relief of Holtby, has been excellent for a couple of months now. With the playoffs only a month away and the race for postseason positioning tightening, the Caps don't have the luxury of patience right now.
"Right now, just like anybody, they've got to just find a way in their game," says Caps coach Barry Trotz when asked what the team's next step will be in regards to Holtby. "He hasn't had a real good stretch just like a player. He is going to work with our goaltending coaches and get his game in order. He has won a lot of games for us and he is an elite goaltender in this league. Everybody goes through some dry spells and he is having one right now, really."
Trotz was also asked whether he would stick with Holtby as his No. 1 netminder.
"Just like anything, we'll make that decision based on that," responds the Caps' bench boss. "He has played a lot of games and won a lot of games. So [just because] he is No. 1 doesn't mean that you don't go with Grubi for a bit so he can settle his game. But we'll sit down with [goaltending coach] Scotty [Murray] and our goaltending coaches and just see what the best thing for the long haul is."
Certainly the Caps' recent struggles are not all on Holtby, but he has been scuffling for more than a month now while Grubauer has been playing extremely well over the same span.
"I feel for him," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen of Holtby. "He is trying like heck. He has played pretty well for the most part; we haven't given him a fair shake, I don't think. I think he can play better, but we haven't given him a fair shake in front of him. Grubi is going good. We'll have to play better in front of Holts, and I think he will work himself out of it and a real top-notch goaltender again real soon."
Expect Grubauer to start on Thursday in Los Angeles, which was likely in the cards before Tuesday's loss in Anaheim. The Caps have a practice scheduled for Friday in San Jose ahead of their Saturday afternoon date with the Sharks, so that's when Murray and Holtby are likely to convene for some hands-on work aimed at getting the Caps' Vezina Trophy winning netminder back to his usual standard.
The Capitals come to town as the middle visitor on the Kings' current five-game homestand. Los Angeles beat Columbus 5-2 on Thursday, but dropped a 5-3 decision to the Blackhawks on Saturday. The Kings have been idle since, and they'll conclude this run at home with visits from the St. Louis Blues on Saturday and the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday.
Los Angeles is looking to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs after finishing 10th in the Western Conference last season. The Kings bolted out to an 11-2-2 start this season, but they lost six straight games in regulation in early January to tumble down the Pacific Division standings. Heading into Thursday's game with the Caps, the Kings have won six of their last nine (6-3-0).
Even after Saturday's loss to Chicago, the Kings remained in possession of the second wild-card playoff berth in the Western Conference, and they've managed to maintain that spot during their idle stretch, but only by virtue of tiebreakers. Through 66 games of the 82-game NHL regular season, the Kings are even with the Colorado Avalanche with 77 points and 34 regulation or overtime victories.
The Kings have won five of their last seven home games, losing to Dallas and Chicago over that span. Los Angeles will have the luxury of finishing off its 2017-18 regular season schedule with five of its last six games at Staples Center.