After opening their six-game preseason slate with a 4-3 overtime win over the Sabres in Buffalo on Thursday night, the Caps prepare now for a trip to Chicago and a Saturday night date with the young and resurgent Blackhawks.
The Caps started slowly in Thursday’s win at Buffalo, but the stellar play of goaltender Semyon Varlamov kept them in the game until they could find their legs. Washington’s defense – which included four blueliners who are trying to break their way into the team’s entrenched top seven – were in the lineup along with Brian Pothier and Jeff Schultz. There were some scrambly moments, but the Caps blueline corps did a good job of keeping the Sabres out of the middle of the ice for the most part, and they limited Buffalo to just 23 shots on goal for the night.
The Sabres did not dress a young forward group, either. Eight of the 12 Buffalo forwards who took the ice on Thursday would be considered regulars.
Washington nursed a 1-0 lead into the third period, fell behind twice, came back to tie the game twice, and then won it in the first minute of overtime on Pothier’s power play point blast.
As for the battle for the few positions available on Washington’s own opening night roster, no one played himself out of that derby and a few players showed enough to perhaps get a longer look.
“I think guys played their way into deserving another game,” says Boudreau. “I don’t think anybody was eliminated that was close to making the team or anything like that. It’s tough to call it in September a great show of character, but anytime you’re in an opposing building and you end up giving up a lead in the third period, not only once, but you tie it up and they score again, and then you continue to come back and have the resolve and eventually win it, I was really happy for the [display of] character.”
Prior to Thursday’s game against the Sabres, the Caps reassigned six players to their Canadian junior clubs. More cuts are expected this weekend as AHL Hershey begins its camp on Monday, and this weekend’s slicings should pare the Caps’ camp roster down to somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 players.
“I don’t think it’s going to be quite as many as half,” says Boudreau. “We’ve got too many guys who deserve a shot and have played too well. Now, we want to get to our [opening night] team as quick as possible like everybody else does. I think we lost six guys [Thursday] and [Saturday] we’ll probably lose 15-20. When you have three games in four nights it’s a little bit difficult, and that’s what we have [starting on] Monday.”
While the Caps took several veteran forwards and a comparatively youthful blueline corps with them to Buffalo, they’ll do the opposite for Saturday’s game with the Hawks. Washington will travel several veteran blueliners, but will ice a younger and more inexperienced mix of forwards.
The Blackhawks came back in a big way last season, rebounding from five straight playoff DNQs (and nine DNQs in the last 10 seasons) with their first trip to the Western Conference final in 14 years. After enduring more than their fair share of offseason turmoil, the youthful Hawks are ready to set out in pursuit of greater things.
Chicago has not won a Stanley Cup championship since 1961, but the Hawks may have the nucleus in house with which to accomplish that lofty goal. Young forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are headed into their third seasons in the league, and they are supplemented by a strong supporting cast that includes Patrick Sharp, Andrew Ladd, Dave Bolland, Kris Versteeg and – once he returns to the lineup from off-season shoulder surgery – Marian Hossa. The Hawks also added veteran checking center John Madden over the summer.
The blueline features Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, Brent Seabrook and Cam Barker. The Hawks will rely on former Capital Cristobal Huet in goal, where there is a spririted battle between rookies Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford for the right to serve as Huet’s understudy.
The biggest challenge the Hawks face is keeping their young and talented core together. Keith led all Hawks blueliners in ice time last season, but he is the fifth highest paid defenseman on the team. Heading into the final year of his current deal, he is in line for a large raise as an RFA next summer.
The Hawks also must sign Kane and Toews for 2010-11 and beyond.
Saturday’s game is the first of the preseason for the Hawks, who will open the season overseas with a pair of games against the Florida Panthers in Helsinki. Chicago will play four preseason games in North America, and hopes to be down to its opening night roster before departing for Europe, where it will play two more exhibition contests.