April 6 vs. Florida Panthers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:30 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: 106.7 The Fan and Caps Radio Network
Washington Capitals (18-17-2)
Florida Panthers (12-19-6)
Washington plays the last of its regular season United States road games in 2012-13 against the Panthers in South Florida on Saturday night. The contest is also the last-ever Southeast Division meeting between the two teams.
The Caps come to town on the heels of a 2-1 shootout win over the New York Islanders Thursday night on Verizon Center ice. That win propelled the Caps into the top spot in the Southeast Division for the first time this season.
“The guys will enjoy it for a little bit,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “But we’ve got a lot of hockey left. I think it’s more important that we focus on the weekend because obviously it can drop just as fast. We’ve got to focus on our games.”
Mike Green scored Washington’s only pre-shootout goal in Thursday’s game, a wrist shot that eluded Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov with just 12.9 seconds to play in the first period. For Green, it was his fourth straight game with a goal and he has five goals during that span.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last time any NHL defenseman scored in as many as four straight games is when Green himself did so from Oct. 30-Nov. 7, 2010.
Green holds the NHL record for most consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman with eight, established Jan. 27-Feb. 14, 2009.
The Caps recently navigated their way through a stretch of schedule in which they played nine of 11 games on the road. The first and last contests of that span were a pair of road games against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh. When Washington played the first of those games on March 14, they trailed the Hurricanes by 10 points and the Winnipeg Jets by seven in the Southeast Division standings.
Just over three weeks later, the Caps hold a four-point bulge over the Canes and they’re tied with Winnipeg for the top spot, although the Jets have played two more games.
Washington went 7-3-1 in that 11-game span, and then it returned home to defeat the Islanders on Thursday. Saturday’s game against the Panthers starts another busy and crucial stretch for the Caps. They’ll play four of their next five games against Southeast Division opponents and they’ll play those five games in just eight nights.
“I think that we’re just starting to play our best hockey,” said Caps center Brooks Laich before the game against the Islanders. “The road didn’t intimidate us. We looked at it as a uniting factor and something to go out and have fun with. I think we started to play better hockey and now we just want to continue with that, bring that back home.
“You really want to start to usher in home ice dominance. You want to make it a tough building to play in; it has been in the past for teams to come in and play here. So we want to get back to that. Stick with our same game, keep building on that.”
The Capitals are 10-3 against Southeast Division opponents this season. Five of their 11 remaining games are against Southeast foes.
Since starting the season with a 2-8-1 mark in their first 11 games, the Capitals have rolled up a 16-9-1 mark in their last 26 contests.
“Every game from here on out is huge for us,” said Washington defenseman Jack Hillen on Thursday. “We’ve got to pick up points. Our goal here is to win our division, but every game is important. We’ve got to take points.”
“I feel that we’ve been playing and going in the right direction for a good month and a half,” said Oates on Thursday. “We’ve had our hiccups, and you have a hiccup on every game. No game is perfect, but that’s what you strive for. But I think we’re playing the correct way and doing good things. I think the guys understand what we’re trying to do. We’re in a position right now where the schedule favors us down the stretch where if we do our job, we should be fine.”
Goalie Braden Holtby has played a big part in Washington’s resurgence. He had a run of 11 straight starts earlier this season, the longest by a Capitals goaltender in more than half a decade. Holtby has a current streak of 10 straight starts going, and it will be interesting to see if the Caps try to find a start for backup Michal Neuvirth with Washington’s final set of back-to-back games slated for this weekend.
Neuvirth has missed three scheduled starting assignments this season because of injury or illness.
Holtby made 35 saves in Thursday’s win over the Isles, earning his 16th win of the season and the 30th of his NHL career in the process. Since the start of March, Holtby is 10-4-1 with two shutouts over a span of 15 starts. He has a 2.24 GAA and a .928 save pct. during that span.
After winning the Southeast Division title in 2012-13 and making their first playoff appearance, the Panthers have been decimated by injuries this season. As a result, they’ve dipped back down to the basement of the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings.
The Panthers come into Saturday’s game with a three-game winning streak, their longest of the season. Two of the triumphs came in the shootout and the third came in overtime. The Cats have been idle since Tuesday when they skated to a 3-2 shootout win over the Lightning in Tampa Bay.
Florida’s Shawn Matthias – picked up from Detroit a few years back in the deal that sent Todd Bertuzzi to the Red Wings – is carrying one of the league’s hottest sticks these days. Matthias entered the month of March with three goals in 20 games on the season, but he caught fire in March. Matthias scored 11 goals in 16 games for the Cats last month.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Matthias is just the second Panther ever to score as many as 11 goals in one calendar month. Newly minted Hockey Hall of Famer Pavel Bure did so six times with the Cats, the last of which occurred when he scored 15 goals in March, 2001 to establish the Florida franchise standard for most goals in a calendar month.
There’s some excitement in South Florida over the impending debut of Nick Bjugstad into the Florida lineup on Saturday. Bjugstad is one of three Florida first-round draft choices from the 2010 draft, and he’ll join fellow 2010 first-rounders Erik Gudbranson (third overall) and Quinton Howden (25th) in the Panthers’ lineup.
Bjugstad hails from Blaine, Minn. and went to Blaine H.S. as did fellow Blaine native Matt Hendricks of the Capitals. After three seasons at U. of Minnesota, Bjugstad put up 21 goals and 36 points as a junior with the Gophers this season, and he recently left the program to turn pro and sign an entry level deal with Florida. He is expected to be making his debut on Saturday against the Caps.
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