As we near U.S. Thanksgiving, there are new contenders emerging in the Metropolitan Division. One of them isn't the New York Islanders, but has an opportunity to make a statement in that direction over the next two nights.
Though the Washington Capitals are nine points behind the Isles (and have one game in hand), they in a three-way battle for third with the Smurfs and Demon Spawn, and their underlying numbers hint that they'll be better than their current record if they keep doing what they're doing.
How good of a coach is Barry Trotz? That's a question we often can't answer for the benchmasters of underfunded, undertalented teams because the coach usually gets canned a time or two before the roster gets better. But Trotz had 15 years of data in Nashville, and was often victimized by being the second-best team in a very tough division. (Of course, that team, mired in sixth place in the Central in his final season, is now in first in that still-tough division. Go figure.)
Anyway, without question he has improved the Capitals, which is either high praise for him, or welcome damnation for Dale H*nt*r and Adam Oates.
Of course, the other side of the Trotz coin has always been a struggle to generate offense. In Nashville, that was assumed to come with a defensive mindset initially made necessary by an understocked expansion team. Over time, it became a reputation, though not always deserved. Currently the Caps are putting up 30.4 shots a game and outshooting teams by nearly four shots per game, though recently they've struggled in that department.
Tonight we'll likely see that continue, as the Isles, though a high-event team overall, have been keeping opponents' shots down lately.
Of course, one reason for that and one significant factor in the Islanders' recent string of wins: Lots of even-strength play, not a lot of special teams. That needs to continue tonight; the Capitals power play has converted at over 25%.
The Caps, like the Isles (but to a lesser extent), have found success in the Metro so far this season. As we've seen in lost years past, that can be a difference-maker in determining if anything happens beyond game 82. This two-game home-and-home, which falls on either side of Thanksgiving, could change trajectories for either team the way the Isles sweep of the Penguins last weekend brought them into a new air.
- Johnny Boychuk took another "maintenance day" from practice yesterday but will be in the lineup. Have to wonder if a couple of different cheap shots to his knee from the Kings and Penguins have him nursing things.
- Jaroslav Halak starts again, against his (briefly) former team. (More on that below.)
- Thomas Hickey and Calvin of Haan, both out sick against the Flyers, are expected back in tonight.
- Arthur Staple isn't covering this one, so look to Mark Herrmann for Newsday coverage:
Capuano said it is not a tough sell to get fast young team to buy into 'defense first' plan. Players' ice time depends on it— Mark Herrmann (@markpherrmann) November 26, 2014
Capuano on the Caps:
“To me, they are one of the most high-powered teams in the league,” Capuano said. “They’ve always been and we’ve had some pretty good games against these guys.
Martin on being a "frontrunner" now:
“We’re not going to surprise anybody,” Matt Martin said. “Everyone knows we’re a good hockey team now and we’re tied for first place. Everyone’s trying to catch us. We want to put teams further and further behind us and keep winning hockey games. We’re not going to surprise anyone, teams are going to be ready to play us and we have to be ready to play them too.”
The Capitals will face former employees Mikhail Grabovski and Halak, each of whom had, well, different times in Washington. Grabovski:
I had a great year. I enjoyed being coached by Adam Oates. As a person I have a lot memories from him. They had great guys, a bunch of guys im still friends with now. It was a great experience to play with Alex Ovechkin. Washington is a great city, but you guys know that pressure.
Grabovski on #Isles history: That's one of the reasons I came here... I don't know much, but I know they have more Cups than Washington."— Stephen (@StephenCLorenzo) September 19, 2014
By the way, on Ovechkin: There was some talk of "gametime decision," but this man will indeed be in the lineup for the Caps. He knows when it's time to bear down with his gameface and leave behind those finer perks of being a pro athlete:
Ovechkin said he's ready to play tonight. He has been an Isle killer. Asked him what he likes about Nassau Coliseum, he said, "Not much"— Mark Herrmann (@markpherrmann) November 26, 2014
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks for tonight over here. Don't pick Hillen.