October 22 vs. Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on www.washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (4-2-2)
Atlanta Thrashers (4-1-1)
For the first time in the 2009-10 season, the Capitals take on a fellow Southeast Division opponent when they open a two-game road trip in Atlanta on Thursday night.
Thursday’s game is Washington’s ninth of the season, and its first against a divisional foe. That ties the latest the Caps have ever played a divisional opponent in their history, matching the mark set in 2001-02 when the Caps took on the Tampa Bay Lightning for their first divisional game in the team’s ninth game of the season. In 23 of Washington’s 35 NHL seasons, the Caps have played their first divisional game in either the first or second game of the season.
Washington went 2-1-1 in its first four games of 2009-10 and it has gone 2-1-1 in its last four games as well. The biggest difference has been in the back end. After surrendering 15 goals in its first four games, Washington has allowed only eight tallies in the last four contests.
“With the team defense, it’s a matter of when we get the puck we want to get it moving forward right away,” says left wing Quintin Laing, who skated a single-game career of 17:21 in Saturday’s win over the Predators. “And then when our forwards get it, just try to get it deep in their zone unless it’s [Alex Ovechkin’s] line. The other three lines are trying to get into their zone and just try to play with it. Anytime we can keep it in their end, that’s less time we’re going to play in our end. So less chances and less shots for the opposition.”
Laing has been playing on a line with David Steckel and Matt Bradley for the last few games. That unit has been effective at playing in the offensive zone, cycling pucks and wearing down the opposing defense.
“It starts with [David Steckel] winning face-offs,” says Laing. “Over the season, he has won three out of the four draws. Anytime you can win 75% of your draws, you get them chasing the puck for 20 or 30 seconds instead of yourself chasing it.
“When we get the puck, we know our role. It’s not to turn the puck over. We like to cycle it, but then if we see opportunity we’re going to try to score. Overall, we’re out there to protect leads and control the puck, maybe wear down the other team’s defense.”
Although the Caps’ performance in their own end has improved over the last four games, coach Bruce Boudreau wants more.
“I’m happy with the goals allowed,” says Boudreau, “which is eight in the last four games, and the shots allowed, which is probably 27 in the last four games. But we’ve still got a long ways to go. We can go great for so many periods at a time but then we give up some brain-dead chances and we’ve needed goaltenders to make great saves. We’re up to about 51 [solid] minutes a game. If we can get those other nine minutes, we’ll be fine.
It sounds simpler than it is, but playing in the offensive zone is the best defense.
“If they don’t have it, they’re not scoring,” declares Boudreau. “We want to play in their zone. That’s the key. When it comes into your zone, the simple idea is to get it out as fast as you can. So if you don’t have the puck in your zone, your defense looks a lot better sometimes than it really is.”
The Caps have been nicked up a bit in recent games and practices. Goaltender Jose Theodore has recovered from a bout with back spasms and is ready to go, but will likely back up rookie goalie Semyon Varlamov against Atlanta.
Defenseman John Erskine is eligible to come off injured reserve after missing the last two games but may not play against the Thrashers. Blueliner Shaone Morrisonn was on the sidelines with a lower body injury for the Capitals’ 3-2 shootout win over Nashville on Saturday. He should be ready to go on Thursday.
Forward Boyd Gordon has missed the last few games with a back ailment. He is on the trip but is unlikely to play on Thursday in Atlanta. Winger Alexander Semin has been ill this week and won’t play on Thursday.
“We’ll call up a couple [forwards] from Hershey,” says Boudreau.
Those forwards will join the Capitals for Thursday’s morning skate at Philips Arena.
For the Thrashers, Thursday’s game starts a three-game homestand that starts and ends with visits from the Capitals. Atlanta opened the 2009-10 season with a 6-3 home ice win over Tampa Bay on Oct. 3 and it has been on the road since, going 3-1-1. The Thrashers’ only loss this season came against the Senators in Ottawa.
The resurgent Thrashers finished last season on a strong note and have carried that over into 2009-10. Atlanta is off to a 4-1-1 start this season after finishing the ’08-09 campaign with 12 wins in its last 18 games.
Atlanta has had fewer than 30 shots on goal in each of its six games and it has permitted more than 30 shots against in each of those six games. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has helped withstand that barrage, posting a 3-1-1 mark with a 2.37 GAA and a .929 save pct. in starting five of the Thrashers’ first six games.
After finishing ninth in the league in goals scored last season, the Thrashers have had 21 lamp lighters in their first half dozen games of ’09-10. Ilya Kovalchuk leads the way with seven, Rich Peverley has four and 18-year-old rookie Evander Kane has scored twice. Eight different Thrashers have scored a single goal.
Kovalchuk and the Thrashers have an ongoing dialogue about a possible contract extension. As it stands now, the Russian sniper would become an unrestricted free agent next July 1. The Atlanta captain is gunning for a sixth straight season with 40 or more goals in 2009-10.
Peverley was salvaged from the waiver wire scrap heap in the middle of the 2008-09 campaign. After notching 13 goals and 35 points in 39 games with Atlanta and following up with a fast start this season, the undrafted St. Lawrence product was rewarded with a two-year contract extension earlier this week.
Notes: The Capitals assigned center Michael Nylander to Grand Rapids of the AHL on a conditioning stint. Nylander has yet to suit up for Washington in 2009-10.