One of the quirks of playing every team in the NHL both home and away is a season series can take nearly the whole season to take place, or can be completed in a matter of weeks. For the Ducks the 10 day time frame to complete their season series with the Washington Capitals is one of the quickest of the year, with only the nine day window it took to face the Buffalo Sabres taking less. With both teams in comfortable playoff seating, Anaheim 10 points clear atop the Pacific Division and Washington five points clear in the Eastern Conference wild card race, the small window for their meeting comes at a time where the Ducks defense has been it's wobbliest of the season. Having given up an average of 3.75 goals over the past eight games, they face a Capitals team making their California road trip with a tied for third best in the league 14 road regulation or OT wins.
The Ducks are back in the friendly confines of Honda Center after a 2-2-1 road trip, thanks to the play of John Gibson in the east coast swing-closing 2-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. Frederik Andersen remains on the injured reserve, and according to the Orange County Register likely won't be available until after the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday despite taking part in skating drills yesterday. Thus it's Gibson's crease, and he'll look to build on his 35 save performance in his first NHL start since late October. Corey Perry has shouldered much of the offense in February, leading the team with seven points on four goals and three assists, including his 300th career helper in Raleigh. On the other end of the spectrum Patrick Maroon is the only Duck not to show up on the scoresheet in the month, spending much of it on the fourth line with Nate Thompson and Tim Jackman, averaging the third fewest minutes of ice team on the team. The duo of Clayton Stoner and Sami Vatanen have been Anaheim's best in terms of attempted shot differential while they're on ice, with the Ducks getting 59.4% of the shot attempts while Stoner is on and 57.1% with Vatanen at even strength. The penalty kill has had a rough go the last two games, surrendering four odd-man goals in 11 opportunities for opponents.
After opening their California swing with a 5-4 overtime win over the San Jose Sharks off the stick of Joel Ward, the Capitals stumbled last night in a 3-1 loss to the "Uh oh, look who's won four in a row and is three points back of a wild card with a game in hand" Los Angeles Kings. As would be expected Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have carried the offensive water for the Caps in the month of February, with each chipping in seven points to lead the team. Ovechkin's four goals during the span are tops (he's scored goals in an 'every other game' pattern since January 20 against Edmonton and scored last night), with Troy Brouwer second with three tallies. Backstrom has been the top table-setter in the month dishing six assists, followed by Evgeny Kuznetsov and Mike Green with four apiece. Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner have been the best play-driving defenders, with the Capitals getting 55.6% of the shot attempts while Niskanen is on and 53.1% with Alzner iced at even strength. Despite seeing the fifth lowest ice time on the team with the sixth highest relative percentage of shifts started in the defensive zone Tom Wilson had been the best player for even strength shot attempt differential, with the Caps taking 58.2% of the attempts in his limited time. Last night was the first time in two games that Washington has not scored a power play goal, but also the first time in three games they did not surrender an odd-man goal.
What We Can Learn From This Game:
The Ducks have been outshot by a 32.83-26.67 margin in February, with the opponents getting more pucks on net 11 of 18 periods (includes two overtimes that split evenly) during the stretch and 12 times allowing more than ten shots against in a 20 minute session. A possible positive sign was holding the Hurricanes to only seven shots while defending a one-goal lead in the third period, but the Capitals have far more offensive weapons and will provide a stiffer test as evidenced by the previous meeting between the clubs. With the last change is the opportunity to put the defenders in more favorable situations, but we'll see whether the unit is still stumbling or beginning to recover. Either way, Gibson will play a vital role in the result.
Ovechkin has historically basted the Ducks with 15 points in 10 games, including six goals in four games scoring in each meeting at Honda Center. Tonight will be the night he finally doesn't dent the twine in Orange County.