October 3 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 106.7 “The Fan” FM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap pre-game podcast at 2 p.m. and Two-Man Advantage live video show at 5:45, both on www.washingtoncaps.com
Toronto Maple Leafs (0-1)
Washington Capitals (1-0)
Two nights after taking down the top Eastern Conference team from 2008-09 on the road in their season opener, the Capitals return to the District to host the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Verizon Center opener.
Saturday’s home opener marks the earliest date that regular season hockey has ever been played in the building. The Caps had an Oct. 3 home opener against Buffalo in 1997-98 after a 4-1 opening night triumph on the road, but that game was Washington’s final home opener in the old USAir Arena.
Washington started a bit slowly in its 2009-10 opener on Thursday night in Boston, but found its legs quickly and went on to a convincing 4-1 over the Bruins. Goaltender Jose Theodore kept the Caps close until the team could get its collective legs, and the entire team played splendidly and cohesively for the game’s final 50 minutes.
The Caps surrendered 10 shots in the first 13 minutes of the game and just 10 more in the 47 minutes thereafter, effectively throttling what was the league’s second-best offensive club in 2008-09.
“It definitely was a team effort defensively,” says blueliner Shaone Morrisonn, one of the Caps’ standouts from the opener in Boston on Thursday. “I think as a six[-man unit] we played solid and Jose made the big saves when we needed them.
“That’s the way we’ve got to play every night, but it can’t just be the defense. The forwards have got to chip in and help us out. It makes everybody’s life easier back there.”
As is so often the case, special teams also played a role in the game. The Caps scored the game’s first goal on a power play and later pushed a 2-0 lead to 3-0 early in the third with a second extra-man tally.
Meanwhile, Washington’s penalty killing outfit allowed the Bruins all of one shot on goal in five power play chances that spanned a total of 8:25.
Last season, the Caps’ power play clicked at a rate of 25.2%, second to Detroit’s 25.5%. Washington has never led the NHL in power play prowess over a full NHL campaign, but this season’s model has enough skill, firepower, chemistry and precision to be the best in the circuit.
“Twenty-five percent is really amazing when you think about it,” says Boudreau of last year’s power play group. “Detroit was 25.7 or something like that, and we were 25.2, I think. Anything over 20 percent to me is a really good power play. So that’s the goal, but at the same time you don’t want to set limits.”
Much has been written and said about the Caps’ lack of an enforcer on the 2009-10 roster, but a strong power play can also act as a bit of a deterrent to on-ice shenanigans and liberties taken by the opposing team.
“It would if I was the other coach,” says Boudreau. “Montreal used to have such a great power play in the 1950s that teams couldn’t take any penalties against them and that’s actually why they changed the rule [to put an end to power plays after a goal was scored].
“It’s something that you have to factor in when you’re playing Detroit, for example. You don’t take silly penalties because you know their power play can kill you. That’s how they’ve gotten by without having a physical presence, even though every time I watch them they look like they’re a pretty physical team.”
The Caps concluded the 2008-09 season with a 29-9-3 mark on home ice, the second best home win total in franchise history. They’ll be looking to pick up where they left off in that department on Saturday when the Leafs come calling at the Phone Booth.
Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has been on the job in Toronto for less than a year, but he has worked hard to put his imprint on the team. The architect of the rugged Anaheim bunch that skated to a Stanley Cup championship in 2007, Burke very much favors a hard-nosed approach and he has quickly remade the Leafs in that fashion.
Burke also recently added young and dynamic forward Phil Kessel by way of a trade with the Boston Bruins. Kessel remains sidelined with a shoulder injury but when healthy he will give the Leafs something they’ve lacked for most of their recent history, a speedy and offensively dangerous winger who is capable of potting 40 or more goals. Kessel scored 36 times for Boston last season at the tender age of 21.
The Leafs haven't had a 40-goal winger since Dave Andreychuk potted 53 and Wendel Clark 46 in 1993-94.
The Maple Leafs opened their season at home on Thursday night, suffering a 4-3 overtime setback at the hands of rival Montreal. Only 10 of the players who dressed for Toronto’s season opener this season were in the lineup when the Leafs concluded their 2008-09 season.
The Leafs have claimed 13 Stanley Cup championships in their long and glorious history, but none since 1967. Only the Chicago Blackhawks have suffered through a longer drought without sipping from the coveted chalice.
If Burke is able to bring to Cup back to Toronto at some point during his tenure, he’ll be able to run for mayor. The locals will even be willing to overlook the fact that he’s a U.S. citizen. That goes for coach Ron Wilson, the ex-Caps bench boss who is now in his second season at the helm of the Leafs.
The Leafs have missed the postseason for each of the last four NHL seasons since the lockout, joining Florida, Los Angeles and Phoenix as one of only four NHL teams to go that long without a postseason berth.
The Caps know that this is a new season and that the Leafs have turned over a new leaf. So to speak.
“We were playing the best team in the East last year in Boston, and it was a good test for us,” says Morrisonn. “We have to be ready every night. We’ve got our home opener [Saturday] night which is exciting, but Toronto is coming in. They’ve made some big changes. They are going to play hard and we’ve got to be ready.”