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SKATE SHAVINGS - News and Notes from Caps' Morning Skate 12/11

NHL's top two teams tangle on Wednesday in Washington, Caps aim to continue recent defensive improvements, more

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

Shout To The Top - The Boston Bruins are in town for the only time this season, taking on the Capitals on Wednesday night in a battle of the Atlantic and Metropolitan Division leaders. Both teams are coming off stinging 5-2 losses to seventh-place division rivals on Monday night, when the Caps fell at home to Columbus and the Bruins started a four-game road trip with a loss in Ottawa.

But these are the two top teams in the league right now, and really, they're among the top teams of the last decade. Boston has made the playoffs in 10 of the last 12 seasons and has not dipped below 93 points in its two misses. The Capitals have reached the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 seasons, and they had 90 points the year they missed.

"They're a great team," says Caps defenseman Radko Gudas of the Bruins. "Their chemistry is great, their first line is one of the best lines in the league right now, and they've been feeling pretty good about themselves.

"I think we just need to stick with our system, play our game, make them play our game. If we can do that, if we can stay physical, stay fast, then I think we have a really good chance of coming out of here with two points."

Video: Rinkside Update | Radko Gudas

Boston has dropped three straight (0-2-1) and the Caps are seeking to avoid their first set of consecutive regulation losses this season, but both teams have been remarkably consistent to date, suffering just five regulation losses each with the midpoint of the season just ahead on the horizon.

"It's more to do with our mindset that has created that consistency, and the ability to win games in different circumstances," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "I think we are a confident group right now, and we have shown an ability of being able to just play the game that is handed to us and not get frustrated or try to push too much. I think we're pretty comfortable in any situation of the game, and it shows."

Ain't Gonna Give It Up - Back in October, the Caps rolled up a 9-2-3 record, their best ever in the season's first month. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of that feat was the fact that the Caps were giving up goals to the tune of 3.28 per game in October, a rate that is typically not conducive to long term success.

The Caps knew that bleeding goals against at that rate wouldn't be sustainable over the long haul, and they've worked to bring that number to a more realistic level. During their recent California trip, the Caps actually cracked the league's top 10 in goals against for a couple of days. As they prepare to take on the Bruins tonight, the Caps are 11th in the NHL with an average of 2.84 goals against per game, meaning that they've shaved nearly half a goal a game off their goals against rate in the last 18 contests.

"It was a good road trip and all the stats look good," says Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov of the team's recently completed trip. "Our goal is to get better, but still there are so many games left, so we are still trying to feel comfortable and trying to get our confidence and have it for the playoffs. It's always fun when you're winning, and it's easier to play when you have confidence.

"Not every game is going to go our way, so we need to stick with it. Holts has been great for us. He didn't give up a lot, and he has helped us win a lot of games."

Video: Todd Reirden speaks with the media on December 11.

Since the return of Michal Kempny to the Washington lineup on Oct. 18, the Caps are 18-3-3 over a stretch of two dozen games. They've also been able to dress and deploy the same group of six defensemen for all 24 of those games, a real luxury in the modern NHL.

"Guys playing together makes a big difference," says Caps center Nic Dowd. "It allows guys to get into a rhythm, and you don't have to worry about, 'Am I in the lineup, or am I not in the lineup?' There aren't extra variables that are outside of your control.

"But I think the biggest thing that I keep seeing is that our [defensemen] are skating forwards all night. They're pressuring down ice, they're pressuring at the offensive blueline. It's really tough playing a team where you feel like you're getting sealed at the red [line]. And that's what I feel like our team does. We have so much back pressure coming with our forwards, because we put a really big emphasis on tracking. And when you have that track from three forwards, and our [defensemen] see that, our [defensemen] are so good at playing the rush anyway, at squeezing. You watch, and you see clear cut 3-on-2s that turn into 2-on-2s because our [defense] are so good at tracking the puck and squeezing guys into bad positions.

"Our defensemen are skating forwards all night, and it allows them to seal early, as opposed to sealing at the blueline and now the puck is in a good position - a positive position - for the attacking team. And then we're sealing guys - forcing icings and sealing guys - at the red, which forces bad dumps, forces a lack of possession for the other team. And then I find that we're getting out of the zone much easier than we have in the past. We pressure very hard in the neutral zone, and we track very hard on the backcheck, too.

"Also, our goalies have played well. We're not giving up as many shots, and we're not spending a lot of time in our [defensive] zone, I find."

There is still work to be done. In the 24 games since Kempny's return, the Caps have yielded 47 goals against at 5-on-5, good for 13th in the league. Typically, teams with Stanley Cup hopes and aspirations are in the top five or 10 in goals against, though the Caps were outlier winners when they won the Cup in 2018, finishing 16th with an average of 2.90 goals against per game.

Sixteen Years - On this date in 2003, the Caps also faced the Bruins at home, playing in their first game under new head coach Glen Hanlon. A day earlier, the Caps announced that they had relieved Bruce Cassidy - now the Bruins' head coach - of his coaching duties in DC. Hanlon was an assistant on Cassidy's staff, and he took over the reins, winning his first game in a 6-5 barnburner over Boston.

Dainius Zubrus scored on a penalty shot for Washington and also skated 25:14 on the night. Joel Kwiatkowski (28:16) and Jason Doig (27:25) led Caps defensemen in ice time, the first time all season that two Washington blueliners logged more minutes than Sergei Gonchar (26:12). Bates Battaglia - acquired from Colorado weeks earlier in the first trade of Washington's season-long fire sale - scored his first goal in a Caps sweater.

The game also marked the NHL debut of defenseman Dwayne Zinger, summoned from AHL Hershey prior to the game. Zinger logged just 2:08 on four shifts in the first of his seven-game NHL career.

Two players who suited up for the Bruins that night are still in the league. Patrice Bergeron had a pair of assists for Boston and Joe Thornton had a solo helper for the B's. Bergeron still mans the middle of Boston's top forward trio, and Thornton is still plugging away for the San Jose Sharks.

Video: Two-Man Advantage | December 11

In The Nets - Holtby gets the net for the Caps tonight against the Bruins. Just over nine years ago - on Nov. 5, 2010 - Holtby earned his first NHL win in his first appearance. It came in a third-period relief effort against the Bruins in Washington, and he has shown a mastery of the Boston team since.

In Holtby's first taste of Stanley Cup playoff action in the spring of 2012, he and the Caps bounced the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in a hard fought, seven-game series. Over the course of his regular season NHL career, Holtby is 17-3-0 with four shutouts, a 1.81 GAA and a .944 save pct. in 20 games against the Bruins.

The Bruins have been getting consistently great goaltending from both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak this season. The tandem of veteran 30-somethings is it its third season together, and it has handled every minute of nearly 200 regular season games over that span. The Bruins finished fourth in goals against in 2017-18, tied for third last season, and they're fourth this season.

With another game looming on Thursday night in Tampa against the division rival Lightning, the Bruins will need both netminders in these next two nights. And given Rask's rugged record against the Caps over the years, it's not surprising to see Halak get the net tonight against Washington.

Halak lost his most recent start, a 4-1 setback to Colorado on Saturday in Boston's first regulation loss on home ice this season. That defeat snapped a nine-game point streak for the former Capital; Halak was 6-0-3 during that run.

Lifetime against the Capitals, Halak is 9-10-1 with a shutout, a 2.75 GAA and a .904 save pct. in 22 appearances.

All Lined Up - Here is a look at how we expect the Capitals and the Bruins to look on Wednesday night when they meet for the only time in DC this season:

 

WASHINGTON

Forwards

8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson

13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie

62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 14-Panik

28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway

Defensemen

6-Kempny, 74-Carlson

9-Orlov, 3-Jensen

34-Siegenthaler, 33-Gudas

Goaltenders

70-Holtby

30-Samsonov

Injuries

None

Scratches

72-Boyd

 

BOSTON

Forwards

63-Marchand, 37-Bergeron, 88-Pastrnak

74-DeBrusk, 46-Krejci, 43-Heinen

10-Bjork, 13-Coyle, 18-Ritchie

20-Nordstrom, 52-Kuraly, 14-Wagner

Defensemen

33-Chara, 73-McAvoy

47-Krug, 25-Carlo

27-Moore, 48-Grzelcyk

Goaltenders

40-Halak

41-Rask

Injuries

19-Senyshyn (lower body)

81-Blidh (shoulder)

83-Kuhlman (leg fracture)

86-Miller (knee)

Scratches

42-Backes

75-Clifton

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