Pregame #68: Washington Capitals vs. Edmonton Oilers

Washington Capitals (37-20-10) vs. Edmonton Oilers (23-36-8)
Verizon Center
7:00 PM
TV: Comcast SportsNet (HD) (Game On!), TSN
Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM
Last Meeting: Dec 20, 2009 WSH@EDM, 4-2 W
Familiar Faces of Former Caps: Alexandre Giroux (2006-10)
Former Oilers: Jason Chimera (2000-04), Jason Arnott (1993-98), Tom Poti (1998-2002)
The Enemy:  Our Bloguin Partner: Low On Oil, The Copper & Blue

The Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals face off tonight against the last-place Edmonton Oilers for the only time this season. The Capitals returned from their annual Fathers & Mentors trip with two hard-earned road wins over division rivals and now look to start a 3-game homestand on the right foot.  With 5 straight wins, the Capitals’ stock is trending up.  At this pace, they won’t just pull away from the Tampa Bay Lightning for the division title, they’ll challenge for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and home ice-advantage throughout the playoffs. 

The Oilers are in the middle of a their third 5-game road trip of the season, having lost to the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers last night.  A young team with low expectations to start the season, the Oilers have since lost key players to injury and trade. If anything, that seems to have sparked this young bunch, as they had won 3 straight games entering last night’s match-up against the Flyers. The Oilers have won 7 of their last 11 games, in fact, and their rookies and AHL call-ups seem to be driving the bus.  The Oilers may not have experience on their side, but they are a talent-packed bunch of kids who are used to overachieving.  Last night’s game may have taken some of the jump out of their stride, but the young Oilers will still have plenty of gas left in the tank for the Caps.  This will be a deceivingly tough game for the home team against another team whose stock is rising.

Injury Report:  The Capitals are expecting D Mike Green (head) and D Tom Poti (groin), and G Semyon Varlamov (knee) to miss tonight’s game. C Jay Beagle (upper body) has missed the last 4 games and is questionable.  RW Eric Fehr (shoulder) has been cleared to return.  C Nicklas Backstrom and G Michal Neuvirth left Monday’s win over the Lightning with injury, but neither are expected to miss any time.
-The Oilers expect to be without rookie phenom C Taylor Hall (ankle), prompting the recall of Giroux, who scored in his first game against Colorado.  The Oilers also expect to be without D Ryan Whitney (ankle), D Taylor Chorney (knee), and RW Ales Hemsky (shoulder).  D Theo Peckham (head) is questionable.

This is Hockey! Read on!

What to watch for:

Rookie-Fuelled Success:  Even without Taylor Hall in the lineup, the Oilers’ rookies are playing a big part in the team’s 7-4-0 run since February 15.  RW Jordan Eberle leads the way with 4 goals (2 game-winners) and 7 points in those 11 games, plus a key shootout goal.  Swedish rookies LW Linus Omark (4 assists, game-winning shootout goal in last 7 games) and Magnus Paajarvi (1 goal, 4 points in last 9) have also chipped in some timely offense.  Not to be outdone, rookie goalie Devan Dubnyk has won 4 of his last 7 games with a 2.59 goals against average and a .918 save percentage over that span.  Look for these kids to make an impact tonight. 

Score Early and Often:  The Capitals are dead last in the NHL with only 39 first-period goals.  They also have allowed the first goal in 6 straight games, not that it seems to bother them.  At 20-16-4, the Caps lead the NHL in wins and winning percentage when the opponent scores first, and they are the only team with a winning record.  What the Caps seem to forget is that at 17-4-6, they are much better when they score first.  Not only is scoring first a bellwether for the game, NHL team systems are designed to play with the lead, so potting the first goal gives the team control of the game’s tempo.  Scoring first also takes pressure off of the Caps’ scorers, allowing them to conserve energy and be more opportunistic.  The defensemen can also afford to take their time on the breakouts, either making a safer play or waiting for a better play to open up, leading to fewer turnovers.  While the Caps are practiced at comebacks, it’s not a good habit to be in when the playoffs start, as they’ll be playing against good teams that have made the playoffs because of their ability to hold early leads.

Old Pals:  When Swedish rookie scoring leaders Marcus Johansson (19 points) and Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson (26 points) face-off against each other tonight, it will mark a reunion of two old friends.  Both from big hockey families, Mackan and Pääjärvi [pronounced: pay-yah-yahr-vee] were linemates in juniors as far back as 2005 with the Malmö Redhawks.  After playing in the 2006 TV-Pucken tournament together, they went their separate ways to different club teams, but continued to play together in numerous international tournaments.  Together they won the 2007 Ivan Hlinka Tournament, won bronze at the 2008 IIHF World U18 Tournament, and earned silver and bronze medals at the 2009 and 2010 World Junior Championships, respectively.  If the Caps were ever to target a linemate for Johansson in a trade, Pääjärvi would be the guy.  For more on these two, check out our story from June.

Pääjärvi (left) and Johansson celebrate a goal.