The Detroit Red Wings face the Washington Capitals today (3:00 PM EST on FSD/NBCS Washington/Sportsnet One/TVA Sports/97.1 FM) with the Wings hoping to rebound from their controversial loss to the New York Islanders.
Washington has had its ups and downs of late, but it still sits atop the Metropolitan Division, and Saturday’s storylines focused on the Caps’ decision to sign center Lars Eller to a 5-year, $17.5 million contract extension. As the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan noted, the Capitals are stacked down the middle:
The new deal also gives the Capitals some stability going forward. The team’s top three centers — Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Eller — are now signed through the 2019-20 season. Fourth-line center Jay Beagle is a pending unrestricted free agent.
“It’s huge,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “If you get four good centermen, it’s a strength of a team. That’s how you build your depth in your lineup.”
Said Trotz: “Everybody in the league is dying for centerman. And we have a lot of them. . . . I think every good team, it doesn’t matter what sport, if you’re strong up the middle, you’ve got a chance. We’re strong at the center position and we’re strong at goal, and if you give us a year or two to get some young guys coming in at defense, that’ll be a strength for us as well. I think we’re in a good position.”
Because most of the Saturday stories from the Washington press corps involve Eller’s extension, WashingtonCapitals.com’s Mike Vogel’s game preview cuts to the chase:
The Caps close out a quick two-game stay at home on Sunday afternoon when the Detroit Red Wings make their lone visit to the District this season. Washington embarks upon a weeklong, four-game road trip after Sunday’s game; the Caps won’t play at home again until Feb. 20 when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Washington just concluded stretch in which it played 11 of its previous 17 games against Metropolitan Division opponents, going 10-4-3 overall and 6-2-3 in the 11 Metro contests. The Caps come into Sunday’s game on the heels of a sweep of a home-and-home set with the Blue Jackets, winning 3-2 in Columbus on Tuesday and 4-2 in the District on Friday.
The sweep of two games against the Jackets was a good response after the Caps gave up a combined total of 11 goals in losses to the Penguins and Golden Knights last weekend, and now Washington is looking to build momentum ahead of the upcoming road trip. The Caps have permitted two goals in consecutive games for first time since Jan. 21-25. They’ve not put together three such games in more than two months, since Dec. 4-8.
The Caps have been getting offense of late, and their attack has shown diversity. Washington has scored three or more goals in each of its last six games, the longest streak it has put together this season. Fourteen different Caps skaters have scored in the team’s last six games.
Here’s his Wings scouting report:
The Wings have not won consecutive games in regulation since Dec. 15-19. Detroit showed fleeting signs of life around midseason, wrapping a season high four-game winning streak evenly around New Year’s Day. But they’ve won only four of 13 (4-7-2) since, and are mired in the morass of mediocrity that defines the lower half of the Atlantic Division.
Heading into Sunday’s slate of NHL games, the Red Wings are 20 points in arrears of third-place Toronto in the Atlantic and they’re 10 points south of the Carolina Hurricanes for the second wild card berth in the Eastern Conference. With 29 games remaining, realistic playoff hopes have all but vanished, and the Wings are virtually certain to be sellers rather than buyers ahead of the NHL’s Feb. 26 trade deadline.
NBCS Washington’s J.J. Regan posted the Caps’ probable lines…
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana – Evgeny Kuznetsov – T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Jay Beagle – Devante Smith-Pelly
Christian Djoos – John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik – Madison Bowey
Braden Holtby starts with Philipp Grubauer as backup
Scratches: Alex Chiasson, Taylor Chorney
Metropolitan Division-leading Washington (32-17-5) completed a sweep of back-to-backs Friday night with a 4-2 home win over the Columbus Blue Jackets despite being outshot 37-17. Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, Jay Beagle and Lars Eller scored, and Braden Holtby stopped 35 shots.
“It tells you a lot about the depth we have on the team,” Eller told The Washington Post. “When guys like (Nicklas Backstrom) and (Alex Ovechkin) are not scoring, we can still win games and we can still score four goals or whatever. That speaks to how deep this team is.”
Eller, Washington’s third-line center, is a big part of that depth and on Saturday the Capitals re-signed him to a five-year, $17.5 million contract extension.
The 28-year-old Eller has registered 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) in 53 games this season. He is three points shy of establishing a season high, set in the 2012-13 season with the Montreal Canadiens, who dealt him to Washington in June 2016.
The Capitals’ top three centers (Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Eller) are signed through the 2019-20 season.
“I think every good team, it doesn’t matter what sport, if you’re strong up the middle, you’ve got a chance,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “We’re strong at the center position and we’re strong at goal, and if you give us a year or two to get some young guys coming in at defense, that’ll be a strength for us as well.”
Washington won the first meeting this season 4-3 in overtime on Oct. 20 at Detroit. Ovechkin scored the winner and Andre Burakovsky — a healthy scratch Friday against Columbus — had a goal and an assist. Holtby made 24 saves.
Tomas Tartar scored twice for Detroit and Mrazek stopped 37 shots.
The Red Wings are wary of their opponent, as they told DetroitRedWings.com’s Dana Wakiji…
“They’re an excellent hockey team,” [coach Jeff] Blashill said. “They’ve got some really elite players that can create space, so you gotta do what you can to eliminate it. I thought they created space against us even when we had good defensive structure, so we gotta make sure that we’re eliminating their space the best we can. We gotta make sure that we’re making them defend as much as possible. We gotta make sure that we play to our identity of a fast pressure hockey team. If we do that, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Ovechkin leads the league in goals with 32. One of those goals came in overtime when Ovechkin scored the game-winner on the power play in a 4-3 victory over the Wings Oct. 20 at Little Caesars Arena.
But the Capitals are a lot more than Ovechkin.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has 15 goals among his 52 points, defenseman John Carlson has nine goals among 42 points, Nicklas Backstrom has 12 goals among 41 points and All-Star goaltender Braden Holtby is 28-10-2 with a 2.74 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in 40 games.
The Capitals are an impressive 20-8-1 at home this season.
“They always play well in their home building,” Abdelkader said. “It’s always an energetic and fun atmosphere. We’ve played some really good games with them in the past there. Look forward to another one, we just got to take it one kill at a time, obviously be aware of Ovechkin. But he’s not our main focus. We got to do what we do and stay with our structure.”
The 20 home wins are tied for most in the league with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars.
The Red Wings worked on their penalty-kill during Saturday’s practice, and they discussed said penalty-kill afterward with Hockeybuzz’s Bob Duff…
“Obviously, we gave up four there last night, so we want to make sure we get back to work at it,” Detroit coach Jeff Blashill told detroitredwings.com. “Nothing you can do about what’s happened in the past except to learn from it and get better for tomorrow.
“Our penalty kill at times has been excellent. It’s not only been statistically excellent, at times during the year it’s looked excellent. We’ve got to make sure we get back to our principles.”
There was plenty of blame to be shouldered in Friday’s goal fest, as the Isles tallied a club-record four goals during Bertuzzi’s sentence. Cohesion went out the window and chaos ruled. Looking like a beach volleyball player diving for a dig, Nick Jensen’s head-first sprawl attempting to block Michael Barzal’s show only made it more difficult for goalie Petr Mrazek to see and control the shot, leading to an easy rebound goal for Anders Lee. Danny DeKeyser didn’t have coverage on Lee, and he screened Mrazek on Nick Leddy’s goal by choosing to battle Lee for position rather than front him.
Blashill felt the problems began with how easily the Wings welcomed the Islanders into their zone.
“I would say the biggest thing is when the penalty kill is at its best, it’s making stands at the line, it’s forcing the puck out of opposition hands, getting it and getting it out of the zone,” Blashill said. “We gave up the entry too easy. So when you give up the entry, now you got opportunities for them to shoot and they have a real shooting power play with (Lee,) who I think is the best net-front guy in the league.
“The best way to avoid that is to not let them set up. Unfortunately last night, we let them set up too much. We allowed a shooting gallery to happen with a great net-presence guy and we got burned on that.”
And the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan:
“How we reacted on the kill,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “We have to bail the young guy out. He’s played real good hockey for us, he’s a heart and soul type of guy, and you have to bail him out. We didn’t do it. They got into the zone too easy and once you’re in the zone in the NHL, it became a bit of a shooting gallery and we need better execution than that.”
The four power plays allowed were the most allowed by the Red Wings in a regular season game since Jan. 19, 2013, when the Blues scored four times with the man advantage.
It was the most power play goals allowed in one period by the Red Wings since Jan. 4, 2007 at San Jose, when the Sharks scored four goals on the power play in the third period, in a 9-4 Sharks victory.
The Islanders created momentum earlier in the period, cutting the Red Wings’ lead to 3-2 – lost it when the Red Wings scored twice – but regained it after the first power play goal, scored by Brock Nelson (who had three goals, including the game-winner in overtime).
“There were feeling a little bit better about themselves when they scored that second one, even started to get on a little roll,” forward Henrik Zetterberg said. “During that penalty, you’re scoring those goals and they (start to) believe in themselves. We couldn’t really pull it off (to stop it).”
Here’s hoping that the Red Wings pull off something special in Washington today.