Jan. 11 vs. New Jersey Devils at Capital One Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
New Jersey Devils 15-21-7
Washington Capitals 30-10-5
The Capitals open up a three-game homestand on Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils, who are making their first visit of the season to D.C. The Devils will make their second and final trip to Washington next week when they also provide the opposition for the Caps' homestand finale on Thursday night.
Last month in New Jersey, the Caps and Devils met for the first time this season. Washington came away with a 6-3 victory in that Dec. 20 contest, scoring all six goals at even strength, and getting goals from three of their four forward lines along with lamplighters from a pair of defensemen.
Saturday's contest continues a string of five straight games against Metropolitan Division opponents in the run-up to the Capitals' midseason break for the bye week/All-Star break, a respite that begins after Washington's next road game, next Saturday afternoon against the Islanders. That string of five straight Metro games started with a 3-2 loss to the Flyers in Philly on Wednesday, a setback that halted the Caps' winning streak at three.
Washington drew six power plays in the loss to the Flyers; it scored on the delayed penalty on the first of those calls, taking a 2-1 lead midway through the first period. But the Caps couldn't take advantage of any of the other five power plays - all of which came in the final two periods - and worse, they surrendered the game-winning shorthanded goal to Flyers center Kevin Hayes on one of those man-advantage opportunities late in the middle period.
After Jakub Vrana scored on the aforementioned delayed penalty to give Washington a 2-1 lead in the first, the Caps yielded late goals in the first and second periods to the Flyers. Just after the Caps killed off a Philly power play in the latter stages of the first, Robert Hagg scored in the final minute of the initial frame, tying the game at 2-2 just as it appeared as though the Caps would nurse their one-goal lead to first intermission. And Hayes' shorthanded strike came two minutes ahead of the game's second intermission.
"That's tough, but I feel like that's hockey sometimes," said Caps center Nicklas Backstrom of the late goals, "or maybe sports in general. Even if we wanted to get a lead there in the second, we let in a shorty. It's disappointing, but at the same time, we had enough chances in the third, too. We had a lot of power plays; I don't know how many, two, three, or four in the last [two periods]. So, we should have done something better. But yeah, this is on us for sure."
At Friday's Caps practice, Jakub Vrana practiced with Washington's first power play unit and Evgeny Kuznetsov went out with the second outfit. Kuznetsov has scored three of Washington's seven power-play goals since December 1, and Vrana - who is second on the team with 19 goals - has not scored a power-play goal in more than a year, since Jan. 8, 2019, when he netted his only power-play goal of last season.
Vrana debuted in the NHL in 2016-17, scoring three goals in 21 games with Washington that season. All three came on the power play, but he has netted two power-play goals in exactly 200 games since, playing almost exclusively on the second unit.
Video: Locker Room | January 10
"Sometimes when you struggle - like we have the last couple of games - I feel like sometimes you just need to shake it up a little bit," says Backstrom. "And we've always had two good units. To be able to split it up, it's going to be harder for other teams to defend.
"We want to be better on the power play, and we need to be better. So we'll shake things up, and see where we're at."
Washington's power play has been a critical component of the team's attack for the better part of the last decade. The Caps' extra-man unit has clicked at a rate of 20 percent or better for seven straight seasons, the longest run of its kind in franchise history. Although the Caps are still at 21 percent on the season, they've scored on just seven of 51 (13.7 percent) of their man-advantage opportunities since the start of December, ranking next-to-last in the league over that span.
"We looked at a couple of different things today in practice, that we worked on," says Caps coach Todd Reirden of his team's power play. "For us, the focus is on trying to improve in that area. We haven't been where we'd like to be, probably since around the early part of December.
"For us, we want to spread some of the talent out, and go with a little bit of a shorter shift mentality where we can win some more puck battles, because right now, we're not winning enough puck battles. We've gotten outworked in some areas. I think that by having a fresher group out there, then our success level for winning puck battles and executing better will improve."
Video: Reirden | January 10
New Jersey got off to an abysmal start this season, and it replaced coach John Hynes - who is now the head coach of the Nashville Predators - with assistant coach Alain Nasreddine. The Devils also dealt away top line winger Taylor Hall, sending him to Arizona last month for a package of picks and prospects rather than risk losing him for nothing in return in free agency next summer.
At the time of Hynes' dismissal, the Devils were 9-13-4. Since Nasreddine took over, New Jersey is 6-8-3. The Devils are next-to-last in the league in both goals scored (110) and goals against (150), and their minus-40 goal differential is also next-to-last, ahead of only Detroit (minus-71).
The Devils cobbled together a three-game winning streak from Dec. 29-Jan. 2, beating Ottawa and the Islanders on the road and edging Boston in a shootout at home, but they've dropped three straight since, permitting 15 goals against in the process. Most recently, New Jersey fell 6-3 to the Rangers in New York on Thursday night.
Saturday's game starts a set of back-to-backs for New Jersey, which will return home to host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday. The Devils will return to Washington on Thursday where they'll face the Caps in the second of four straight on the road.