ARLINGTON, Va. – The Washington Capitals trudged listlessly through the start of consecutive losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins earlier this week.
In their 6-4 loss to the Flyers on Wednesday, the Capitals registered a season-low eight shots through two periods, a total they matched the following evening in a 3-0 loss to the Bruins before finishing with a season-low 16.
The Capitals, who have been held to five or fewer shots in five of their past seven periods of regulation, pinpointed neutral-zone play as the source of their recent offensive frustration.
Against the Bruins in particular, the Capitals' poorly placed dump-ins allowed Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask to quickly reverse the flow before they could establish any sort of forecheck.
In preparation for the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday, Washington placed added emphasis on execution between the blue lines.
"It was the first thing in our meeting today," coach Adam Oates said. "Our neutral zone has to be better in terms of getting through their wave so we can put the puck in the right spot where we can actually forecheck, and if we don't, what's our fallout plan."
The Capitals are well aware that Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith is one of the better puck-handlers at his position in the NHL and will adjust accordingly.
"It's a crucial part of the game to get that soft chip, that soft dump and get it to die in the corner," forward Jay Beagle said. "It almost is an art to get it to just die behind the [defense] and not let it go all the way to the goalie, because once it's in the goalie's hands, a lot of the goalies nowadays are like a third [defenseman]. They can break it out pretty good."
Goalie Jaroslav Halak will make his Capitals debut after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday.
During three-plus seasons with the St. Louis Blues, Halak played behind one of the League's stingiest defenses. That is not the case in Washington, where the Capitals allow seven more shots per game.
During his tenure with the Blues, Halak faced at least 33 shots, the Capitals' current per-game average, 26 times. Washington has allowed at least 33 shots in 38 games this season.
"We had nights we gave up 20, we had nights we gave up 38, 40," Halak said, referring to the Blues. "It's not like I haven't faced any shots the past three years."
Here are the projected lineups for the Coyotes and Capitals:
Lauri Korpikoski – Antoine Vermette – Mikkel Boedker
Martin Erat – Kyle Chipchura – Radim Vrbata
Brandon McMillan – Mike Ribeiro – Shane Doan
Rob Klinkhammer – Jeff Halpern – David Moss
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Zbynek Michalek
Keith Yandle – Derek Morris
Brandon Gormley – Michael Stone
Scratched: Paul Bissonnette, Chris Summers
Injured: Martin Hanzal (lower body), David Schlemko (lower body)
Notes: It will be a reunion of sorts on Saturday for three former Capitals as forwards Jeff Halpern, Mike Ribeiro and Martin Erat all return to Verizon Center. Erat was just acquired by the Coyotes on Tuesday.
Marcus Johansson – Nicklas Backstrom – Alex Ovechkin
Dustin Penner – Jay Beagle – Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera – Eric Fehr – Joel Ward
Chris Brown – Ryan Stoa – Tom Wilson
Karl Alzner – John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov – Mike Green
Jack Hillen – Connor Carrick
Scratched: John Erskine
Injured: Brooks Laich (groin), Mikhail Grabovski (left ankle), Aaron Volpatti (left shoulder)
Notes: Defenseman Dmitry Orlov will return from his two-game suspension for boarding Flyers forward Brayden Schenn on Sunday. Chris Brown, part of the return for Erat, will also be facing his former club just days after being traded.