November 11 vs. Chicago Blackhawks at United Center
Time: 8:30 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 8-3-1
Chicago Blackhawks 10-3-1
Washington starts a three-game road swing on Friday night in The Windy City against the red-hot Chicago Blackhawks, winners of seven straight games. After having their own winning streak halted at five with Tuesday night's 3-0 whitewashing at the hands of the San Jose Sharks at Verizon Center, the Caps are aiming to start another winning roll against one of the league's top teams.
Heading into Thursday night's slate of NHL games, the Blackhawks (third) and the Capitals (fifth) both rank among the league's top five clubs in terms of points percentage.
Tuesday's loss to the Sharks was the sixth straight setback (0-4-2) suffered on home ice against San Jose, the second straight shutout loss to the Sharks at home, and the third defeat via shutout in those last six home games against that foe. Washington's last home ice victory over San Jose came on Oct. 15, 2009.
Although Washington outshot San Jose by a narrow 24-23 margin in that game, the Caps were limited to the fewest shots they've had in any game this season on Tuesday against the Sharks. Entering the game, the Sharks were the league's second best team in terms of shot suppression and Washington was fourth, so the low shot total wasn't stunning to either side.
"They're the defending champs of the Western Conference," says Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt of the Sharks. "You've got to find ways to score, or ways to get there. It was tough and it was sometimes a boring game because of how well they were playing defensively."
Down two goals heading into the third period for just the second time all season, the Caps had a pair of third-period power play opportunities with which to carve into that deficit. Although they generated a good number of strong scoring chances and looks, the Caps weren't able to break the ice, and they suffered their first whitewash of the season as a result.
"We've just got to find a way to work a little bit harder," says Caps defenseman john Carlson of Washington's power play. "I think we've been working real good at it, and you'd rather have it that way, but it's getting too far [into the season] now. We've got to start scoring goals.
"We're just going to have to find another level. I think we've been moving it around and getting the chances that we like and want, but we're not doing anything with them."
The Capitals have finished each of the last four seasons in the top five of the NHL"s power play ledgers, finishing no lower than 21.9% in any of those campaigns. Washington goes into Thursday night's slate of NHL activity with a 13.2% success rate on the power play this season. That's a far cry from the last four seasons, and they're 1-for-15 (6.7%) with the extra man since the calendar flipped to November.
As Carlson noted, Washington's power play unit is creating scoring chances and executing many of the fundamental elements of a successful power play. What's been lacking is what's most important: finishing.
"Our power play has got as many chances," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Their entries are probably better than they have been in the last two years. Their ability to execute the entries and the zone time and all that is better than it has been. We just haven't gotten the numbers to where we want them to be. A lot of that is just a little of the finish, like the San Jose game.
"We've just got to have some finish. And that's just bearing down around the net, that's getting a little more hungry and finishing the play. A lot of good things are happening, but with the end result, scoring chances don't matter. They don't count scoring chances; they count goals. And we need goals."
Three nights after tasting defeat at the hands of the Sharks, the Caps head into the lion's den in Chicago. They'll be facing arguably the league's most consistently elite team over the last several years in the Blackhawks, and they'll be doing so in front of a packed Friday night house at United Center.
"They've been so successful the last five years that anytime you go in there it's a rocking building and it's always a fun atmosphere to play in," says Schmidt. "It's a lot of fun."
Washington dropped back-to-back games in regulation earlier this season, doing so for the first time since March, 2015. Going into the San Jose game, those were the only two regulation defeats on the Caps' ledger this season. The Capitals were able to avoid going two games without collecting at least one standings points through the entirety of the 2015-16 season, becoming the first NHL team to earn that rare distinction since the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. The Capitals will need to scrape at least a point out of Friday's game in Chicago to avoid a second such occurrence in the first month of the 2016-17 campaign.
"It's always nice playing against a good team," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "They have experience winning the Cup and it's a challenge for us. We're going to take this challenge."
By virtue of its 2-1 overtime victory over the Blues in St. Louis on Wednesday night, Chicago pushed its winning streak to seven. After starting the season with just two wins in their first five games (2-3-0), the Blackhawks have now collected at least a point in each of the nine games (8-0-1) they've played since.
Severe penalty killing woes undid the Hawks in the early going. Chicago was nicked for at least one power-play goal against in each of its first eight games this season, and the Hawks were 4-3-1 during that stretch. Chicago surrendered multiple power-play goals in five of those first eight games this season, but it has righted the ship significantly since. The Blackhawks have been perfect on the kill in five of their last six, snuffing out 18 of 19 (94.7%) opposition power play chances during that stretch.
Even with that recent strong stretch while shorthanded, the Blackhawks remain firmly entrenched in the basement of the league's penalty killing ledger. The Hawks come into Friday night's game with a 67.3% kill rate on the season, and the distance between Chicago and 29th place Calgary (72.4%) is greater than the distance between any other two teams from 1-29 on that list.
Call Of The West - Three nights ago in D.C., Washington's five-game winning streak died at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, who blanked the Capitals 3-0 at Verizon Center. On Friday night, the Caps are in Chicago where they'll aim to rebound from that loss. They'll have to do so against the hottest team in the league; the Blackhawks carry a seven-game winning streak into tonight's game against the Capitals.
"They're obviously a good team that has put some wins together here and they're going on a little streak," says Caps center Jay Beagle. "It's our job to come in here - in a great building to play in - and put our best effort forward tonight and to try to stop their streak."
We're not quite a month into the 2016-17 season, and already the Caps have played a quarter of their 28 games against Western Conference opponents this season, going 5-2 in the seven games against the "other" conference. Facing so many unfamiliar foes so early in the season is not new to the Caps, who usually have a Western-heavy slate early in the season.
"It's always fun to play against different teams," says Beagle. "After the lockout, the new alignment has made it so you play everyone at least twice, once in your building and once in theirs. It makes it a lot more fun to go into rinks that you don't really see that often and go up against teams you don't see that often.
"We always start the year against a lot of Western Conference teams. We've got to do a job against them because they're important points to get."
The Caps are 3-1 on the road against Western opposition this season, with all four of those games coming on Washington's four-game journey through western Canada late last month.
"It makes you pay attention a little more in the pre-scouts and such; it's not as repetitive," says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby of facing less familiar foes. "It's fun to challenge yourselves against teams like the Blackhawks, teams that have been very good for a long time. But really in the end, there are no games in this league that you can't not get up for. Everyone is pretty good. We've just got to focus on our game plan against the Blackhawks and make sure we execute it."
Washington has won four of its last five games and seven of its last 10 against the Blackhawks. After tonight, the Caps will play five straight games and 12 of their next 13 against their fellow denizens of the Eastern Conference.
From Friends To Foes - Both head coaches in tonight's Washington-Chicago match-up and both goaltenders were members of the championship Team Canada entry in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. While the two coaches had a longstanding prior relationship that grew stronger during their time with team Canada, the new netminders began to forge a relationship.
When he was coming up as a young coach in the AHL with the Baltimore Skipjacks in the early 1990s, Caps coach Barry Trotz had Hawks coach Joel Quenneville on his team, toward the tail-end of the latter's playing career.
"There is no coaching him," says Trotz of those days in Baltimore a quarter-century ago. "That would be disrespectful to Q. He knew more than I ever did back then. But we've known each other since he was in Washington and I was in Baltimore. He's a fantastic person and obviously a fantastic coach. I always like to catch up with him.
"The relationships with the coaches at the World Cup were all good. You got to spend a month with someone that you don't, usually, because you're usually in competition and you see them a couple times during the year and maybe at the draft. So it was good to catch up, a good experience. It was hockey central every day, and that just makes you better. We actually know each other's game fairly well. But to talk hockey and the viewpoints was a phenomenal experience."
Holtby and Chicago's Corey Crawford were the backup goaltenders for Team Canada, serving as understudies for starter Carey Price. Long days on the practice rink together helped build a bond between the two elite netminders.
"Yeah, that was probably the best part," said Holtby. "Corey and I did a lot of work together.
"I really appreciate his game. You don't get to see him very much with him being out west. He does some things outstandingly well that obviously I can learn from and try to get better at. He's a great guy who works really hard, earns what he gets and that was probably the best part of the experience."
Seven Straight - The Hawks' current seven-game winning streak marks the eighth time in franchise history the team has won as many games in a row, and it matches the fifth longest streak in franchise history.
All Lined Up - Washington is expected to make a change on the blueline, as Taylor Chorney will draw in for Nate Schmidt, marking the first time the former has suited up this season. Trotz was cagey as to which forward would sit out for Washington tonight.
"I don't know yet," responded Trotz, when asked whether Brett Connolly would return to the Washington lineup tonight.
Chicago will be missing second line center Artem Anisimov, who was felled by an upper body injury in Chicago's 2-1 overtime win over the Blues in St. Louis on Wednesday night.
Here's how we expect the Capitals to look when they take to the ice against the Blackhawks in Chicago on Friday night, and here's how we believe the Hawks will look as well:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
65-Burakovsky, 20-Eller, 14-Williams
82-Sanford, 83-Beagle, 26-Winnik or 10-Connolly
10-Connolly or 26-Winnik
8-Schmaltz, 19-Toews, 88-Kane
72-Panarin, 16-Kruger, 81-Hossa
11-Desjardins, 70-Rasmussen, 14-Panik
38-Hartman, 48-Hinostroza, 22-Tootoo
15-Anisimov (upper body)