Nov. 8 vs. Florida Panthers at Capital One Arena
Time: 7:30 pm
Radio: 106.7 The Fan, Capitals Radio 24/7
Florida Panthers (6-4-1)
Washington Capitals (5-4-1)
The Caps conclude a five-game homestand on Wednesday night when they host the Florida Panthers’ lone visit to the District in 2023-24. Carrying a 3-1-0 mark for the homestand to date, the Caps are seeking to finish with a flourish in Wednesday’s final against Florida.
Idle since a 2-1 win over Columbus here on Saturday – the 1,000th home ice victory in franchise history – the Caps took Sunday as a scheduled day off before practicing on Monday and Tuesday in preparation for the Panthers. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov missed each of those practices with illness, and his status for Wednesday remains murky. If he is unable to play against Florida, the Caps could run with 11 forwards and seven defenseman, but according to Caps’ coach Spencer Carbery, they also might recall a forward from AHL Hershey, a decision that’s likely to be made early Wednesday after they check in with the ailing pivot to see how he is coming along.
Ten games into the regular season, the Caps are still grinding their way through, and they’re seeking to shore up certain areas of their game, mostly related to scoring more goals. With an average of just 1.9 goals per game, Washington ranks 31st in the 32-team NHL in that department. But the Caps have absolutely maximized the bang for their scoring buck; despite the dearth of offense, they’re sitting in a tie for 16th in the NHL with a .550 points percentage to this point of the campaign.
“A hundred percent,” said Carbery in the wake of Saturday’s win. “And what you hope and what I believe, is you’re building good habits – winning habits – for when hopefully we’re able to score a little bit more. And as things tighten up, you’ve been in these situations; you know how to play a 2-1 game, you know how to protect a one-goal lead when you’re not scoring. All of that stuff, for your group, builds confidence and it enables you when those moments are going to come and they mean a lot, you’re comfortable in those situations.”
An offensive juggernaut for the last decade and a half, the Caps’ ongoing scoring struggles have been even more pronounced at home. Washington has scored 10 goals in its seven home games, but its 4-3-0 home ice record is 19th best in the NHL. Even the lowly San Jose Sharks, who are still seeking their first win of the season, average more goals per home game (1.50) than the Capitals (1.43).
After posting a 1-3-1 mark in their first five games this season, the Caps have won four of five since, relying largely on solid and timely goaltending, stiffer defensive play and a perfect penalty kill to get things turned in a northerly direction .
“This year, we feel like we’re controlling the game a little bit more,” says Caps’ right wing Tom Wilson. “We feel like we’re in control of momentum swings a little bit more; we’re in control of pucks in our own end. In the offensive zone, we’re doing good things.
“Maybe the goals aren’t going in right now, but for our team right now with our structure and implementing a lot of new things this year, I think guys have done a good job of buying in, learning it quickly, and being on the same page. And in the last couple of years, what we’ve strived to do is to get everybody on the same page and clicking, and moving towards the common system and the common goal, and not having guys on their own page.
“I think for the most part, the team is coming together pretty well. In our structure on the ice, we look better and we’re controlling those moments. Yeah, the games aren’t 6-1 or 5-1, but it’s important to learn how to play in those tight knit games as well.”
Two of Washington’s wins were achieved via the shootout, two more were two-goal victories by way of a late empty-net goal from the Caps. And the fifth win is the 2-1 victory over the Blue Jackets this past Saturday. Now, they’re set to face a Florida team that’s coming off a 5-4 overtime win over Columbus on Monday night in South Florida.
“I know them very well, having been in Toronto last year and playing them in the second round [of the playoffs],” says Carbery of the Panthers. “[They present] a lot of challenges; [they’re] a good hockey team, and they’re really good at controlling play. They’re a shot-first team, very similar to some teams that that we’ve played this year like Minnesota or Calgary, where constantly you feel like you’re under duress because there’s bodies and pucks coming towards your net.
“It creates all these chaotic situations that if they really get you on your heels, it’s one puck to the net, it’s two pucks, it’s three, it’s four, and now all of a sudden you’ve had a 35- or 40- second shift in your defensive zone. And then you add into those players like the Matt Tkachuks of the world, who are as good as anybody in that area – loose pucks, rebounds, screens, and tips.”
Florida roared out to a 3-0 first-period lead on Monday against the Jackets, chasing Columbus starter Elvis Merzlikins in the process. But Columbus clawed its way back, and actually led going into the final minute of regulation. That’s when Jackets’ defenseman Ivan Provorov committed a brutal turnover in his own end, and Panthers’ forward Nick Cousins pumped it right into the net to force overtime. Noted Caps killer Carter Verhaeghe won it for Florida early in the overtime session.
“They score a ton of goals right at that net front area,” says Cerbery. “So that’s something that we’ll need to be really focused on. If you watch [Monday] night, the first period against Columbus, it was an absolute shooting gallery. Those are some of the things, and then there’s some personnel that they have that are problematic with for Verhaeghe, goaltending wise, a lot of different things.”