The Washington Capitals are exactly like that damn box of chocolates Forrest Gump talks about a million times in the 90’s hit movie: You never know what you're going to get when they step onto the ice.
Which team is going to show up? The one that gets out-shot, out-hit and shut out, or the one that plays a lockdown trapping defense with stellar goaltending, beating teams up and down the ice? I am still waiting for the one that scores four to five goals a game consistently.
Maybe today, the Caps show up when they play the Los Angeles Kings in a rare 12:30 matinee at the Verizon Center in Washington DC.
The Forrest Gumps need this one today, Caps fans, because it could be a long road trip if they do not win. By winning, I do not mean a moral victory in gaining one point in another overtime loss. They need two points before heading west.
The Capitals are currently the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, just two points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal holds the tiebreaker with one more win than Washington does, so a Caps loss coupled with a Habs win tonight would drop Washington to sixth in the conference.
This is not a place Washington wanted to be, and quite honestly expected to be in mid-February. It's one thing to try to get your offense back on track, but it is another issue all together when you are fighting for a playoff spot. Having to do both could cause the Caps to press more than they are, and we all know what happens when teams press: They make mistakes and lose.
Winning today will not be easy for Washington. The LA Kings are today’s opponent and like the previous five teams the Caps have played, they are on a point-scoring streak and play tight defensively. The Kings are 10th in the Western Conference, but just four points behind the sixth-seeded Nashville Predators.
The Kings are 5-0-2 in their last seven games and are coming off a 2-1 OT loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night. Washington is looking to jump-start its struggling offense again, but it is running into a hot defense with an outstanding goalie. The Kings have surrendered just 19 goals in their last 11 games (1.73 goals per game) and are led by Jonathan Quick in goal.
Quick has 24 wins this season and is tied for third in the NHL in goals against average with the Capitals' Semyon Varlamov. Each is allowing just 2.13 goals per game.
On offense, the young 23-year-old Slovenian star Anzei Kopitar leads Los Angeles. Kopitar has 16 goals and 34 assists on the season. Jack Johnson, the third overall selection in the 2005 NHL entry draft, leads the Kings at the blue line.
The Kings appear to be set for a long time to come in all three phases of the game, as Quick, Kopitar and Johnson average just 24 years of age.
The Capitals will be trying to recover from their eighth shutout loss of the season on Wednesday night. The eight shutouts are the fifth most in a season in their 36-year franchise history.
The Caps have been shut out eight times in the 244 games of the Bruce Boudreau era. They are 5-2-1 with 31 goals in the games immediately following those eight shutouts.
The Capitals continue to struggle mightily with the puck but without it, they have turned into one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. Currently Washington is fifth in the league with a 2.38 goals against average, one spot ahead of today’s visitors, the LA Kings.
The stellar defense has led to the Caps picking up points in 18 of their last 23 games. Over that stretch, they have surrendered just 41 goals (1.78 goals against) and are 11-5-7 during that span. Michael Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov have led the way in net with some help from Hershey Bears call-up Braden Holtby.
All three goalies have more than held their own. The Caps' poor play on offense has helped spotlight a few soft goals each has allowed, but overall the goalies' play has been a major factor in Washington getting 29 points in their last 23 games.
While all three have shined at times, Semyon Varlamov is standing out. Varlamov has allowed just 19 goals in his last 11 games with a .944 save percentage and a goals against of just 1.76 over that span. How bad have the Caps been on offense in those 11 games? Varlie is just 5-3-3 over that span, but is now in the top three in the NHL in both goals against and save percentage.
The Caps' penalty kill unit, which still ranks second in the NHL, has killed 36 of their last 38 short handed situations as the Kings enter today’s game ranked 18th on the power play in the NHL. As the Caps offense has gone, so has its power play. Washington is moving the puck better with the extra man but has dropped all the way to 20th in the NHL with the extra man advantage.
The Caps already have one more regulation loss (16) than they had during the entire 2009-10 season. The Caps are 0-4-1 in their last five games versus Western Conference opponents this season.
The Caps and Kings have played just six times since Alex Ovechkin’s rookie season, and today’s visit is just the third over that span that LA has played in DC. Washington trails the Kings in the all-time season series with a record of 34-51-13.
Following today’s game, the Caps will hit the road to play five games, beginning with a three-game trip out west. They will first stop in Phoenix and then head to Anaheim and San Jose. The trip wraps up east with visits to Buffalo and Pittsburgh. They will return home to play the New York Rangers on February 25.