The Detroit Red Wings hope to win their second game in a row as they host the Washington Capitals this evening (7:30 PM on NBCSN/97.1 FM).
The 42-24-and-7 Capitals are sitting atop the Metropolitan Division, and they’ve won 5 of their past 6 games, with their most recent win coming in the form of a 4-3 decision over the Dallas Stars on Tuesday.
The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan attended Wednesday’s Capitals practice, and she reports that the Caps’ biggest roster question going into tonight’s game is the status of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has an upper-body injury:
“We’ll see where he is with the trainers,” Trotz said Wednesday of Kuznetsov’s availability Thursday night. “No promises. And I really don’t know. We’ll see where he is tomorrow.”
Washington has a four-point cushion over the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets for first place in the Metropolitan Division; with just nine games left in the regular season, that’s a fairly commanding lead. This trip against the Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers — teams well out of the playoff race — is an opportunity for the Capitals to secure the division’s top postseason position. Getting Kuznetsov back in the lineup would certainly help. He is the team’s second-leading scorer with 21 goals and 50 assists; he also plays on Washington’s first power play and is often the one making the zone entries go smoothly.
Before Kuznetsov appeared to hurt his left arm against the New York Islanders on Friday, he was centering the top line with captain Alex Ovechkin and winger Tom Wilson. Without him, center Nicklas Backstrom moved into that spot, and the ripple effect has rookie Travis Boyd as the third-line center with wingers Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly. Since the start of the calendar year, Kuznetsov has nine goals and 23 assists in 31 games.
Wednesday’s practice was optional, but the Capitals announced that goaltender Braden Holtby wasn’t on the ice because he was taking a “maintenance day.” Holtby played the full game in Tuesday night’s 4-3 win over the Stars, but Dallas forward Remi Elie collided with Holtby halfway through the third period, and Holtby was initially slow to get up. Since Trotz wants to continue rotating goaltenders for the time being, Philipp Grubauer was expected to get the start in Detroit anyway.
“We’ve got some sickness and a couple guys with maintenance, so that’s why we’re optional today,” Trotz said.
WashingtonCapitals.com’s Mike Vogel penned a state-of-the-Caps and Wings-Capitals game preview combined into one:
[Braden] Holtby stopped 24 shots to earn his second consecutive victory [on Tuesday], his 31st of the season and just the second of his NHL career against the Stars. John Carlson scored the game-winner with 4:59 left, and Alex Ovechkin had the 100th three-point game of his NHL career with a goal and two assists. But one of the guys who had a big positive impact on the game for the Capitals did not record a point on Tuesday against Dallas.
Playing in his 382nd career game less than 10 days shy of his 24th birthday, Caps right wing Tom Wilson logged a single-game career high of 21:06 in ice time on Tuesday. He also led the Caps with nine hits in the game, and he tied for the team lead in shots on goal (six) and blocked shots (three).
“He was all over the ice,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz of Wilson. “He had physical impact, he had impact on top players like [John] Klingberg and Benn and people like that, he was good defensively, he made big plays, he had chances shorthanded – he was just a factor. You talk about [being] hard to play against, different guys have different ways that they can have effect on opponents. Obviously Tom can do that with the physical play, but he doesn’t get enough credit for how he skates and moves around and does things, not only with the physical play. But once you establish that physical element, all of a sudden it’s opening up things for his teammates, and he is getting opportunities. I just thought he was real good [Tuesday] night.”
Now the Caps take to the road for three straight, seeking to protect that aforementioned lead in the standings. The Caps own an ordinary 16-15-5 road record this season with five away games yet to be played, and they have yet to string together more than two straight road wins this season.
Each of the three teams the Caps will face on this trip is well out of playoff contention, with nothing to play for but pride. That doesn’t mean that the Caps can take any of them lightly, or that they can hope to win merely by showing up at the arena on time.
“At this time of year, it doesn’t really matter where teams are in the standings,” warns Trotz. “Obviously if you’re playing someone who is right there with you [in the standings], it seems to have a little bit more of that playoff feel. But everybody is playing well. Detroit beat Philadelphia [on Tuesday]. What you find when you have teams coming in is they know the season is over in a couple of weeks and they’re playing loose, they’re playing for next year. They’re trying to knock of f some teams and to make your life a little bit more miserable to get some pleasure out of it. There is a danger, but at the same time, you’ve got to respect your opponent and go after them. I think you don’t look at any opponent right now any differently if you can.”
The Capitals’ website also posted coach Trotz’s 7:59 off-day presser, as well as a set of game notes ahead of tonight’s game:
In the win over Dallas, Ovechkin scored his league-leading 44th goal of the season and 602nd of his career to surpass Jari Kurri for sole possession of 19th place on the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring list.
Ovechkin scored on a set play off an offensive zone faceoff. After Backstrom got tossed from the dot, T.J. Oshie won the draw straight back to defenseman John Carlson, who fed the puck to a wide-open Ovechkin, in his usual spot in the left circle, who drove in his signature one-timer.
Detroit snapped a 10-game losing streak, the team’s longest since 1977, in a 5-4 home shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.
“Hopefully it takes the monkey off everyone’s back and we can just go out there and play the last nine games,” said goaltender Jimmy Howard, who made 27 saves. “Compete hard, and have some confidence heading into the offseason.”
Center Frans Nielsen scored the only goal of the shootout and center Dylan Larkin scored twice for Detroit. Forward Luke Glendening contributed a short-handed goal and rookie forward Evgeny Svechnikov picked up the first goal of his NHL career.
Coach Jeff Blashill and teammates raved about Glendening’s key block of a shot during a penalty kill in overtime that might have saved a goal.
“What a block by Glennie (Glendening) there,” Howard said. “He’s not a guy who gets talked about but he means so much for this team, means so much in this dressing room.”
Glendening missed Wednesday’s practice–as did Henrik Zetterberg, Trevor Daley and Mike Green–but it’s believed that Glendening will play tonight, as noted by DetroitRedWings.com’s Dana Wakiji:
Early in overtime Tuesday night, Glendening went down to block a slap shot by Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek as the Flyers were still on the power play.
“To me, it’s exemplary of the way our guys have continued to battle extraordinarily hard,” Wings coach Jeff Blashill said after the Wings’ 5-4 shootout victory. “I don’t know how his foot will end up, but it hurt for sure. He was done for the rest of the game. I just think it’s totally indicative of the compete that our team has continued to have. Anybody that hasn’t been around us every day might not understand that.”
Goaltender Jimmy Howard made sure to mention Glendening after the game.
“What a block by Glenny there in overtime,” Howard said. “He’s not a guy that gets talked about a lot, but he means so much to this team. He means so much to everyone in this dressing room. He does that night in and night out for us. He also got a great goal (Tuesday night).”
That block prevented the Flyers from scoring with the man-advantage for the third time.
“It started with a huge kill, Glenny sacrificing his body again,” Dylan Larkin said. “He’s done that his whole career and to see that, it means a lot. It means a lot to everyone in this room, for him to sacrifice his body like that, a one-timer with the slow pass, the guy’s walking right into it. It doesn’t feel good but to see that got us going.”
Evgeny Svechnikov also received his coach and teammates’ praise on Wednesday afternoon–the day after scoring his first NHL goal–as noted by the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan…
“Last night was his best game,” coach Jeff Blashill said of Svechnikov, who saw 8 minutes 38 seconds of ice time on 13 shifts, was plus-1, and had four shots on net. “He held on to the puck and was real strong in the offensive zone, and that resulted in a few (offensive) chances. It’s a good step.”
What can separate Svechnikov from other players, potentially, and at least for now earn him more ice time and move him up the depth chart, is using his size to be strong on the puck. At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, the 2015 first-round draft pick has the strength to be a factor with the puck and be particularly effective around the net.
“He played the way he’s going have to play to be successful,” Blashill said. “He was heavy on the puck. Him and I talked about how can he be different than other players on our team. The one thing that he can do is be real heavy and be strong on the puck.
“He’s a big, thick guy. He’s got ability, so be heavy and strong. He doesn’t want to get into a track meet up and down the sheet. He wants to be a guy who can spend time in the offensive zone. He did that, to a large degree, (Tuesday), so that’s a great step. We need more of that.”
Since being promoted from Grand Rapids on March 8, Svechnikov has gradually adjusted to to the NHL level. He isn’t nearly getting the ice time he was accustomed to with the Griffins, he’s been mainly seeing fourth-line duty, and his impact has been limited.
But Svechnikov has continued to learn and adjust.
“I feel better on the ice, feel more comfortable,” Svechnikov said. “You have to use your chances, every shift I go on the ice. I have to give everything I have and earn it, earn the ice time. It’s way different here (in the NHL). I get different ice time and I have to earn it. No one will give anything for free. Consistency is the key. Be a pro every day and just do everything right, on the ice.”
And the Free Press’s Helene St. James found that Svechnikov’s being encouraged to play like another member of the Wings’ “future” turned current contributor in Tyler Bertuzzi:
Bertuzzi, a second-rounder from 2013, was called up Dec. 21, after the Wings lost Luke Glendening to injury. Bertuzzi’s minutes fluctuated from the 15-16 range to the eight-minute range, and by the time Tomas Tatar was traded Feb. 26, Bertuzzi had shown enough to warrant an audition in the top six mix. He worked his way onto a power play unit, and Henrik Zetterberg’s line.
“Tyler is a good example of a guy who grabs the minutes,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “You rarely get given minutes in this league and he certainly came in and when we traded Tats, he had played well enough in my mind he’d given me tons of confidence to use him and I was excited to put him up in those spots. He’s done excellent. Player minutes are all about earning the coach’s confidence and the more you earn, the more you play.”
Svechnikov, 21, has gone from being a go-to guy in Grand Rapids to being a fourth-line guy with the Wings, averaging around eight minutes per game. He’s trying to push for more and scoring a goal could help.
“I have to use my chances — every shift I go on the ice I have to give everything what I have an earn the ice time,” Svechnikov said. “It’s way different, I got different ice time now, and I have to earn it. Nobody is just going to give it to me for free. Bert is a great example. He have great big time now. He plays on first line. He’s great example.”
The Wings see Svechnikov, 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, as someone who can separate himself by being strong on the puck. Part of it is he’s needed time to adjust, time to acclimate.
How’s Svechnikov feeling right now? Pretty good, as he told Hockeybuzz’s Bob Duff:
“I was a little nervous, a little uncomfortable in the first games, but now I know my teammates closer and I feel better on the ice,” Svechnikov said. “I feel more comfortable and confidence. I feel the puck more on my tape and just have free hands, not just holding it. I feel comfortable in the games. It’s just beautiful being here.”
And he’s ready to do whatever it takes to stay here, looking to maximize his opportunities whenever he’s given the chance to display his wares.
“I have to use my chance,” Svechnikov said. “Every shift I got on the ice I have to give everything what I have and earn it. Earning the ice time, earning what I got. It’s way different. I got the different ice time now. I have to earn it. Nobody is just going to give it to me for free.”
In the multimedia department, the Red Wings posted Twitter videos of Justin Abdelkader, Svechnikov and coach Blashill’s off-day comments…
— Detroit Red Wings (@DetroitRedWings) March 21, 2018
— Detroit Red Wings (@DetroitRedWings) March 21, 2018
— Detroit Red Wings (@DetroitRedWings) March 21, 2018
The Free Press’s Helene St. James posted a clip of Svechnikov and Blashill’s remarks…