Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Preview: Washington Capitals Return Home To Face Columbus Blue Jackets

Though it was brief, the Washington Capitals’ West Coast road trip has come to a close. The Caps have returned to their home in the nation’s capital with one out of a possible four points, following two highly disappointing losses against the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. While they play different styles of hockey, the two teams are similar in that they’re incredibly powerful, even in the highly competitive Western Conference. How powerful? They have claimed the top two spots in their respective divisions.

Tonight’s opponent, the Columbus Blue Jackets, is entirely different. The Capitals’ new Metropolitan Division rival remains in seventh place. That’s a worrisome place to be in, especially given the weak nature of the Metro Division as a whole. The Caps are fortunate to sit at second place with 19 points to the Jackets’ 12, both of which are abysmal numbers by league standards.

However, it’s likely that the two teams’ performances thus far are a long shot from where they finished at the end of last season. The Capitals, as we recall, surged late in the season to claim their fifth Southeast Division title in six years. The Blue Jackets barely missed the playoffs, and their strong end-of-season play was anchored by Sergei Bobrovsky’s stellar performance.

Bear in mind that was last season. In terms of save percentage and GAA, Bobrovsky is nowhere to be found among the NHL’s top thirty goalies. While Braden Holtby hasn’t been consistently solid, he has bailed the Caps out. Then again, he’s also done the opposite. He’s a goalie, and though it’s been said over and over thus far, the defense rarely does him favors.

However, Washington’s defense corps has begun developing chemistry. The reunion of Karl Alzner and John Carson has proved to be effective in shutting down their opponents, while occasionally bringing some offense to the game. Carlson has scored three goals already in the season, while Alzner remains mostly solid playing his shutdown style.

On the other hand, the second pairing of Mike Green and rookie Nate Schmidt has been a mixed bag. It’s no secret Green has always been an offensive defenseman, and he’s been putting up quite a few assists this year. A key component to the Capitals’ power play, Green plays a decent two-way game when needed. Schmidt, his partner, is somewhat like-minded. He looks to be a promising physical defenseman that can make smart plays, but his rookie mistakes at times cost the Caps.

Meanwhile, Alex Urbom and Steve Oleksy have been playing a very physical game. They should be applauded for sticking to what’s simple – and usually effective. How they and Washington’s other defenseman fare against Brandon Dubinsky and Marian Gaborik will help determine the outcome of the game. Above all, though, the Caps must score.

With the Caps’ offensive output now more evenly distributed (read: Alex Ovechkin doesn’t have fifty percent of the team’s goals), they can’t get too comfortable. Staying on their toes to create scoring chances and get goals past Bobrovsky is essential. Whether they’ll be on highlight reels or are the product of luck, maintaining a high shooting percentage and wearing the defense down is crucial.

Washington must also work on taking fewer penalties. Though they boast a highly effective special teams unit, constantly killing off penalties has worn them down. Columbus’s power play is middling, while their PK ranks in the bottom ten of the league. Should they become undisciplined, the Capitals should be able to notch a power-play goal or two.

All in all, the Caps can and should gain two points in the standings before they head to Detroit on Friday. The Jackets are a weak team, and tonight’s game offers a great way for the Caps to brush up on finer areas of their game and pinpoint subtle troubles. Whether they’re tangible or intangible, Washington can pay special attention to those things, but most importantly, they cannot kick their feet up and relax. No matter how well or poorly Columbus plays, a lackadaisical attitude will be the kiss of death once again.

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