Preview: Capitals - Lightning
The Capitals had a suspicion their four-day break in the schedule, their longest non-Olympic hiatus of the season, would have a negative impact on the Metropolitan Division standings.
While the Caps were practicing at Kettler Capitals Iceplex this week, the Flyers and Rangers were piling up enough points to climb over the Caps and push them into fourth place in the Metro Division and ninth in the 16-team Eastern Conference.
Which means if the playoffs started today, the Caps would be on the outside looking in.
There is a saving grace, however. The Caps [46 points] have played two fewer games than the Flyers [50 points] and three fewer games than the Rangers [47 points].
They’ll quickly make those games up in the final three weeks of January when they play six times in the next eight days, including tonight’s visit to Tampa [7:30, CSN-Plus] against the Lightning. Nine of their next 13 games are on the road.
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“We kind of put ourselves in this little drop we’re in right now,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “Certainly, we can change that. There’s no better time to get on a winning streak than when the games are rolling as quick as they are.”
“This is an important time in the season,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s getting tighter in the standings and we need to focus on winning.”
In an effort to spread out the scoring and give opposing coaches more to think about, Capitals coach Adam Oates split up the dynamic duo of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on New Year’s Day. Tonight in Tampa, Backstrom will play between left wing Brooks Laich and right wing Troy Brouwer, while Ovechkin lines up alongside center Mikhail Grabovski and left wing Eric Fehr.
Marcus Johansson drops to third-line center, where he’ll play between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward for the first time this season.
“We’ve never had a chance to change this up and try things because of [Laich’s] health,” Oates said, referring to the 14 games Laich has missed because of groin pain. “I want to see what it looks like before it’s too late.”
Oates said the Caps “turned it up a notch” last season when he put Laich on a line with Mike Ribeiro and Brouwer and he’s hoping the switch makes defensive matchups more difficult on opposing coaches.
“Maybe we can take a little pressure off Ovi and his line,” said Brouwer, who has three goals and eight points in his last nine games after recording just six goals and 11 points in his first 33 games. “Whenever you can have two lines that are really offensive threats it puts more pressure on the other team.
“I know I’m a good player, I know I can score goals and be a go-to player on this team and in this league. I struggled a little at the beginning of the year, but I’ve come on a lot lately and played good hockey. Hopefully Nick can make us look good out there.”
Laich, who has just four goals in 28 games this season, said he felt “unbelievable” in the Caps’ 5-3 loss in Minnesota on Saturday night and is anxious to play alongside Backstrom and Brouwer.
“I felt excellent,” Laich said. “My lungs were there, my legs were there. No issues at all.”