By Bill Whitehead
There is a little bit of trouble in DC. And by trouble, no, I don’t mean the federal budget vote in the House of Representatives, which passed without the line brawl that was expected by the talking heads at MSNBC, CNN and FoxNews. This problem has to do with the Washington Capitals, the district’s enigmatic but talented team that routinely comes up short despite having arguably the best player on the planet. But Alex Ovechkin – the Great 8, as it were – isn’t a goaltender, nor is he on the blue line. A couple of problems:
GOALTENDING: For years, this has been a sore subject for the Caps (17-12-2, 2nd in the Metropolitan Division), and this season has been no different. While the high-powered offense, ranked seventh in the NHL at 2.94 goals per game, has no problem pressuring opposing goalies and is third in the league on the power play, Washington backstops Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and Michal Neuvirth have shown intermittent moments of brilliance overshadowed by lengthy lapses of sketchy play, allowing 2.84 per game (22nd) and failing to hold leads.
In the Caps’ 6-5 shootout win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, Holtby (13-9-1, 2.82 GAA, .920 %) was the latest to succumb to an all-out attack. The Lightning chased the starting goalie early, knocking Holtby out by scoring three times in the first 11 minutes. If you saw the game’s highlights, you saw Holtby in the Caps’ walkway to the dressing room, sans mask, stunned and looking like a disbelieving Kurt Cobain. Grubauer won the game by allowing just two more goals the rest of the way.
Florida’s first job in the first 10 minutes Friday is to test whoever is in goal for Washington. Holtby is riding no confidence whatsoever and is likely ripe for the picking. Grubauer is untested, only appearing in five career games in the NHL. Michal Neuvirth, who sprained his right ankle stepping on a puck in warmups, is in Hershey on a conditioning assignment. Grubauer will get the start against the Panthers, who will go with backup Scott Clemmensen due to the injury suffered by Tim Thomas at Thursday’s practice.
A manic Cats’ attack like the one that created the final power play near the end of regulation against Detroit would dictate the game’s tone against the inexperienced Grubauer.
MIKE GREEN: From just about whatever standpoint you take, the reality of Mike Green is this: the Washington defenseman has been disappointing. Whether injured and unavailable or committing defensive or mental errors, the 28-year-old Calgary native has drawn the ire of many Washington fans who have grown tired of his erratic play. Against Tampa Bay, the offensive-minded Green, who has one goal this year, received 18 penalty minutes, including a 10-minute misconduct, in the game’s first 11:42. The infractions led to a pair of Lightning power-play goals.
Florida’s second job Friday should be to keep the pressure on No.52. Hit him as often and as hard as possible, agitate and rattle him at every opportunity, and generally make his night in the BB&T Center a miserable one. Green doesn’t like the contact and is easily shaken up. A few hard hits should knock him off his feet – and maybe his game.
The Panthers had a pair of terrible, embarrassing trips to DC last year, losing 5-0 and 7-1. The Cats have won three of its last four games against a good Detroit team and a decent Winnipeg club. To make it four of five, the Panthers will have to establish some strong pressure early and create nice momentum at home.
I don’t know who wins the former Southeast Division rivals’ game Friday night, but the only thing I’d bet on is that red goal light activated like it was on an episode of Cops.