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SKATE SHAVINGS - News and Notes from Caps' Morning Skate 12/23

Caps have shown dramatic improvement in own end, leading Eastern Conference in fewest goals against since Nov. 1, more

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

Monday, Monday - For the third straight Monday the sixth Monday this season, the Caps are in action, this time playing the Bruins in Boston in the final game before the NHL's annual three-day holiday break.

Washington owns the league's best record and has suffered only six regulation setbacks after the season's first 37 games, but half of those regulation defeats have come on Monday (1-3-1). The Caps are on the NHL docket for the third straight Monday; they lost by three goals to Columbus in each of the last two Mondays.

Today's visit to Boston is the Caps' third game in four nights, and they've had to travel for all three games. The mindset now is to let it all hang out tonight, and then bask in the three-day break away from the ice.

Video: TJ Oshie | December 23

"I think with three days off, now you come out at it in one of two ways," says Caps winger T.J. Oshie. "You either leave everything out there because you know you get some days off, or you're a little as lackadaisical and looking forward to the day off a little early.

"I think the boys will be ready in here; always a tough test playing Boston. and it's a tough barn to play in. I think the boys will be up, and the start is going to be crucial tonight for both sides. Who gets a better start I think is going to have a good, good chance of controlling the momentum."

Ain't Gonna Give It Up - We've noted it here in this space for a few weeks now and we've discussed it with players who've been quoted here. But the Caps' dramatic defensive improvement since the season's first month seems to be moving out of its quiet phase.

With its 3-1 win over the Lightning on Saturday, Washington now owns the best goals against average in the Eastern Conference since Nov. 1 at 2.43. You'll recall that despite an impressive - and franchise record for October - 9-2-3 mark in the season's first month, the Caps yielded an average of 3.29 goals per contest over those 14 games. They've carved that down to 2.76 goals against per game on the season, good for eighth in the league. If the Caps had posted that 2.43 figure over the entire season instead of just the last seven-plus weeks, they would lead the league; Arizona's 2.47 is currently lowest in the circuit.

"I think we got a lot of players being very conscious defensively," says Caps defenseman Nick Jensen. "Coaches are always harping on us, making sure we know what we're doing structurally in the [defensive] zone, and then coming into the [defensive] zone. I think a lot of the credit goes to the forwards; they've been really conscious defensively coming back. They work their butts off coming back to help us [defensemen] out. As a [defensive] corps, that gives us confidence to stay up the ice and take away time and space when any team comes at us, and then obviously goaltending is a huge part of that as well."

Video: Rinkside Update | Nick Jensen

At season's outset, the Caps were playing without Michal Kempny, who was still on injured reserve with a lower body injury. With Kempny out and with the offseason departures of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, the Caps started the season with only two blueliners - John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov - who were part of the 2018 Stanley Cup championship team. It took some time for the group to mesh and gel together, and to pick up the nuances of the Caps' system.

"For the most part it's a five-man commitment to keeping the puck out of our net," says Caps coach Todd Reirden of his team's improvement in its own end. "We had some new players that had joined our team and for them understanding what it takes in terms of commitment and detail in the defensive zone is something that maybe they weren't as accustomed to.

"Now they're much more comfortable in the in the [defensive] zone when we are defending and we do have to spend long times in the [defensive] zone which happens sometimes. We're comfortable there, and then on top of that our goaltending has been a you know it's been a really big improvement from the start of the season in the first month."

The Caps have also been better at suppressing shots on net and scoring chances. Last season, Washington permitted an average of 31.5 shots on net per game, ranking 15th in the league. That figure has been pared to 30.6 shots this season, tied for eighth fewest in the circuit.

"Just more guys on the same page," says Oshie. "There have been instances or sometimes whole periods in the last four or five games where defensively we're not where we where we want to be, but for the most part, we're doing a good job of everyone knowing their assignments on what to do. The [defensemen] do a good job of getting pucks stopped and really just denying entries. I think that really helps us out defensively, getting the puck out a little quicker."

Another big reason for Washington's defensive improvements is that they've been able to run the same six blueliners out onto the ice for 30 straight games, as of tonight, since Kempny's return. That's a rare luxury in this league, and the Caps also seem to have a good deal of trust in all six of their defensemen, too.

"I think it helps them with the chemistry, the little plays," says Oshie. "Having a better feel for probably where their partner is on some of the quick plays where you've got time to look, but you don't hear anyone talking.

"I can only speak for being on the same lines as a forward; when you build that chemistry - especially when the team starts winning and you start feeling good - typically you can hold on to that that good play a little longer when you have good chemistry with your partner."

Video: Reirden Pregame | December 23

In The Nets - Coming off a splendid, 26-save performance in Saturday's 3-1 win over the Lightning, Holtby gets the net against the Bruins. He has helped the Caps earn at least a point in 18 of his last 21 starts (16-3-2) and will be aiming for his 275th career victory tonight.

Lifetime against then Bruins in the regular season, Holtby is 18-3-0 with four shutouts, a 1.82 GAA and a .944 save pct.

For the B's, we are expecting to see Tuukka Rask, who is tied with Holtby for the fewest regulation losses (four) among all goaltenders in the league with at least 13 victories. Rask entered this month with a 12-2-2 mark, but is 1-2-3 in his six starts in December, with a 2.79 GAA and an .897 save pct.

Lifetime against the Capitals, Rask is 2-11-5, with both wins coming via the shutout route. He has a 3.10 GAA and an .889 save pct. in 19 career games against Washington.

All Lined Up - Here is a look at how we expect the Capitals and the Bruins to look on Monday night when they meet for the final time 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

52-Kuraly, 13-Coyle, 10-Bjork

20-Nordstrom, 26-Lindholm, 18-Ritchie

Defensemen

27-Moore, 73-McAvoy

47-Krug, 25-Carlo

48-Grzelcyk, 75-Clifton

Goaltenders

41-Rask

40-Halak

Injuries

19-Senyshyn (lower body)

33-Chara (jaw)

81-Blidh (shoulder)

83-Kuhlman (leg fracture)

86-Miller (knee)

Scratches

14-Wagner

42-Backes

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