WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Winnipeg Jets will dress the same lineup they’ve used the past four games when they meet the Washington Capitals on Thursday at Verizon Center.
To put it bluntly, the Caps (25-23-9) have owned the Jets (28-25-5) of late, winning the past five head-to-head meetings, including a 5-4 shootout victory on Oct. 22 at MTS Centre.
But the two teams seem to be heading in different directions going into this contest.
The Caps are having trouble scoring goals, they’ve fallen to seventh spot in the Metropolitan Division and are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in what seems like forever, though they enter Thursday’s action three points out.
A club that once held a distinct home-ice advantage is having trouble in front of their Rocking the Red crowd.
I covered the Capitals’ opening-round playoff series with the New York Rangers last spring and thought their group was ready to push through and move ahead.
After winning the opening two games, I thought it would be a short series, maybe even a sweep.
But the Rangers came roaring back and won the series in seven, leaving the Caps’ with another bitter playoff disappointment.
Now after the disbanding of the Southeast Division, the Capitals have fallen near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division standings and are in a serious funk, winning just three of their past 11 games (3-7-0-1).
So what gives?
Alex Ovechkin is producing at a high rate, with 39 goals to lead the NHL and 58 points in 53 games, so it’s clearly not his fault the team is slumping.
Top-line centre Nicklas Backstrom remains a dishing machine and is averaging nearly a point per game.
But the secondary scoring hasn’t been there from several sources.
Troy Brouwer, one of the best interviews on the Caps and a guy I’m on record as saying is precisely the type of 2nd line winger that would help the Jets, has 11 goals and 24 points in 57 games.
Brouwer brings other things to the table, like championship experience, grit and physical play, but with this group he needs to be a 20-plus goal producer.
Martin Erat asked for a trade earlier this season and still hasn’t found the net. While he has 21 assists, Erat is usually a lock for double digits. Not this year.
Brooks Laich hasn’t gotten back to form since abdominal surgery last season and has only five goals and nine points in 42 games. He’s currently on the fourth line while Casey Wellman fills in for Mikhail Grabovski on the second line.
The Caps’ third line of Joel Ward (17G, 33P), Jason Chimera (12 goals, 29 points) and Winkler product Eric Fehr (nine goals, 20 points) has been productive but there just hasn’t been enough from the second and fourth units.
And with Mike Green out with a concussion, the Caps’ D corps has been enduring some difficulty, so much so that Patrick Wey and Julian Brouillette were recalled from the Hershey Bears and will both suit up tonight, making veteran John Erskine a healthy scratch.
UPDATE: Michal Neuvirth was scheduled to make a fourth consecutive start but was a bit under the weather so Braden Holtby will get the call.
It’s been a tough go of late for Holtby, as he tries to get back to the form that made him my longshot selection to perhaps make Team Canada last spring.
Holtby attended the summer orientation camp, but his play has fallen off significantly (15-13-2 record, 3.00GAA, .909 save %).
As poorly as the Capitals have been playing of late, it’s hard to forget the fact they crushed the Jets — both on the scoreboard and in spirit — last March to set the stage for Washington blowing past Winnipeg in the Southeast Division standings.
Will the Caps’ continue to be the Jets’ kryptonite or will the Jets continue their torrid play under head coach Paul Maurice?
That’s the million-dollar question.
Maurice gave a somewhat cryptic answer when I asked him about his goaltending plans for the rest of the trip.
Without mentioning either goalie, Maurice said that Tuesday’s game basically solidified the decision for him about the remainder of the trip.
As I’ve been saying here throughout the week, I think that means you can look for Al Montoya to get the call against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday afternoon, allowing Pavelec a little breather before suiting up for the Czech Republic at the Olympics in Sochi.
That’s my take on what he said, it’s certainly not set in stone.
As for the lineup, after the fourth line got scored in during the third period against the Hurricanes on Tuesday, I figured Maurice might give Eric O’Dell another shot at drawing in but he’s sticking by James Wright-Eric Tangradi-Anthony Peluso and it will be interesting to see if that line can find some footing here tonight.
Like most teams, the Jets will be keying in on trying to limit the production of Ovechkin and Backstrom and if Maurice can get the match-up he likes, that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Bryan Little-Andrew Ladd-Michael Frolik.
Curious to see how much line matching Caps’ head coach Adam Oates will do and if he’ll try to get Ovechkin and company away from the checking line or the D pairing of Zach Bogosian-Toby Enstrom.
This is the type of game where Jets rookie centre Mark Scheifele and winger Blake Wheeler could have a big impact in — especially with the Caps’ playing a couple of call-ups on their third pair and youngsters Dmitri Orlov and Connor Carrick on their second pair.
If John Carlson-Karl Alzner are playing against the Little line, that could lead to an abundance of scoring chances for Wheeler and Scheifele.
A quick note on the standings watch that I promised: the Jets (61 points) enter tonight’s action two points behind the Vancouver Canucks (63 points) but remember the Dallas Stars (62 points, will have two games in hand on the Jets after tonight) and Phoenix Coyotes (62 games, will have three games in hand on Jets after tonight).
After tonight’s game, the Jets have 23 games remaining, including Saturday’s final game before the Olympic break that will come against the St. Louis Blues.
There’s plenty of time for playoff talk, but that’s all for now.
Just to wrap up the Olympic thought from yesterday, it was Marty St. Louis that will replace Steven Stamkos on Team Canada. Not a surprising selection, given the fact that St. Louis is productive and his own GM is the head honcho for the Canadian team.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the afternoon and the game tonight.
Here’s how both teams are expected to start on Thursday:
Jets Gameday lines
Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Michael Frolik
Chris Thorburn-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Devin Setoguchi-Olli Jokinen-Dustin Byfuglien
Eric Tangradi-James Wright-Anthony Peluso
Toby Enstrom-Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart-Jacob Trouba
Adam Pardy-Keaton Ellerby
Ondrej Pavelec (Al Montoya)
Martin Erat-Nicklas Backstrom-Alex Ovechkin
Marcus Johansson-Casey Wellman-Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera-Eric Fehr-Joel Ward
Brooks Laich-Jay Beagle-Tom Wilson
Karl Alzner-John Carlson
Dmitri Orlov-Connor Carrick
Julien Brouillette-Patrick Wey
Braden Holtby (Michal Neuvirth – came down with flu)