Washington has won three of its first four road games this season, but the Caps are still seeking their first home ice victory of the young campaign. Today's matinee marks just their third home game, but it's been quite a while since they went winless in their first three home games; you've got to go all the way back to 1983-84 (0-3-0) to find that occurrence.
I'll Be Your Mirror - Although the Caps have yet to score on the power play at home this season - they're 0-for-11 in just two games here - Washington has scored with the extra man in all four of its road games this season, and it's coming off a two-game trip in which it scored two power-play goals in each of those games.
Getting Evgeny Kuznetsov back in the lineup after he missed the first three games of the season because of an NHL suspension has been helpful, to be sure. But the Caps' second power play unit has clicked twice in the early going this season, accounting for a third of Washington's half dozen power-play goals on the season.
The Caps' second unit brings a different look than the top unit, most notably with left shots on top (Dmitry Orlov) and on the left dot (Brendan Leipsic) of the 1-3-1 alignment where the top unit has proven right-handed threats in John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin, respectively. Tom Wilson mans the diamond spot on the second unit, with Lars Eller and Jakub Vrana on the right side, interchanging some between the goal line and the dot on that side.
"With it being a lefty on that side," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, referring to Leipsic temping in Ovechkin's office, "it does present a whole different look for us. It's a little bit more of an attacking mindset. It's difficult to defend against when you're showing two different looks with both power play groups. The adjustments that we made in game with switching lines and playing the second group a little bit more at times, that's important as we move forward here."
Orlov scored Washington's first power-play goal of the season - and just the second power-play goal of his NHL career - on opening night in St. Louis. Wilson scored on Saturday night in Dallas, banging home a rebound of a Vrana shot, and becoming one of just three players in the league with both a shorthanded goal and a power-play goal on the young season.
In Saturday's game, Caps defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler drew a double-minor in the game's first minute, ensuring that the second unit would get a lengthy early look on the ice. They cashed in on Leipsic's cross-ice feed to Vrana, who drilled a one-timer from the right dot. Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin made the save, but Wilson was right there to deposit the loose change.
"Yeah, anytime you get on the powerplay it's a bonus," says Leipsic. "Obviously, with that first unit there. They're pretty lethal, they can strike anytime. So, on that first one, we're just trying to get pucks on the net. We haven't had a whole lot of reps together, and we're trying to keep it simple. Made a nice pass through the seam - probably could have put in his wheelhouse a little bit better. But Tom was right on the doorstep. It was a big goal for us."
It's a youthful group; Eller is the oldest of the bunch at 30. With 11 goals, 15 assists and 26 points on the power play over the course of his 691-game NHL career, Eller also leads the second unit in all of those power play categories.
Alex Ovechkin netted a career high 25 power-play goals in 2014-15; Washington's current second unit has combined for 1,718 career games in the NHL, but has combined for one less power play goal (24) than the Caps captain had in his best season.
You can think of the Caps' second unit as a bit of a mirror image of the first. Instead of the right-handed Carlson funneling pucks to the right-handed Ovechkin at the left dot, it's the left-handed Orlov funneling pucks to the left-handed Vrana or Eller at the right dot.
"I like to shoot the one-timer like that," says Vrana. "I've scored lots of goals like that in the past. So far, I've been getting that goal line role in here, and I've been working on my goal line details around the net - trying to get some rebounds, or make the play, or tip the puck.
"But once we rotated a couple of times, I ended up there [Saturday] a few times. I hit the post once with a wrist shot. It was obviously great movement by all of the guys on the ice. Tom made great recoveries, Orly with great movement on the blueline, and Leiper found that seam there for the one-time. It wasn't really in the wheelhouse, but I tried to get the shot on, and it bounced right on Tommy's stick, which was nice. It was a huge goal. I like that spot and taking those kind of shots."
In his short time with the Capitals, Leipsic has shown the ability to make plays. He has the least NHL experience of anyone on Washington's second unit, but also boasts the second highest rate of career power-play points per game of the group, trailing only Vrana.
"It just gives us a different look, I guess.," says Leipsic. "You know, with me on my strong side of my forehand gives us a little bit of a different look than with a righty there. But yeah, you know, we're just trying to keep it simple with guys that haven't played together a whole lot. So anytime we get some chances out there, we're trying to get pucks to the net and trying to take advantage of the opportunities that we get."
Whether it's Vrana or Eller on that right dot, the Caps don't mind cranking them from there, as Vrana was doing on Saturday against Dallas.
"Yes, for sure," says Reirden. "Vrana did and then Eller does from that seam. And I also want there to be a net front presence and then the rebounds that Tom is so good at converging on and then finishing from that diamond area.
"It was a factor for sure. That was a big part of our success, was that second power play and their recoveries. We talked about Vrana and having some secondary scoring early in the year on the power play, but I think he recovered six pucks on that power play. That's what it's about, is outworking the opponent on the power play and something we were struggling with a little bit earlier in the year. By winning some more of those battles, it has given us a chance to string together a couple of good games of power play action."
In The Nets - Braden Holtby is expected to start Monday's game against the Avalanche, making his fifth start of the season. Holtby will be seeking to stem a personal three-game slide (0-1-2) after winning his first start in the Oct. 2 season opener in St. Louis.
Lifetime against the Avalanche, Holtby is 5-1-0 with a 2.34 GAA and a .917 save pct. in six career starts.
The Avs will go with former Capital Philipp Grubauer in goal on Monday. Grubauer won a career high 18 games (18-9-5) for Colorado last season, while appearing in a career high 37 games for the Avs. Grubauer's appearances have increased in each of his four full seasons in the league and should do so again with the offseason departure of ex-Cap Semyon Varlamov.
In his lone career appearance against Washington, Grubauer took an overtime loss last season, posting a 2.98 GAA and an .897 save pct. in the process.
All Lined Up - This is how we expect the Caps and the Avs to look when they meet on Monday afternoon in the District:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 14-Panik
28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
6-Kempny (lower body)
92-Landeskog, 29-MacKinnon, 96-Rantanen
72-Donskoi, 91-Kadri, 95-Burakovsky
83-Nieto, 17-Jost, 22-Wilson
11-Calvert, 41-Bellemare, 13-Nichushkin
28-Cole (lower body)