After a successful (2-0) two-game road trip, the Caps return home to face the Florida Panthers in their first game in the month of December. The Caps closed November with a record of 8-3-3 to extend their franchise-record streak to 14 consecutive months with a winning record.
Washington concluded its quick trip with a 3-2 win over the Hurricanes in Carolina on Monday. Although the Caps have scored the game’s first goal in 20 of their 27 games this season, they fell behind 1-0 against Carolina on Monday. Washington is now 5-0-2 when the opposition scores first this season.
The Caps will play the Panthers without star left wing Alex Ovechkin, who was assessed a two-game suspension in the wake of a knee-on-knee hit with Carolina’s Tim Gleason in Monday’s game. Ovechkin will miss Thursday’s game against the Panthers and Saturday’s game against the Flyers in Philadelphia.
“He made a play that I thought you could compare to an awful lot of plays that have happened so far this year,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “Like [Caps GM] George [McPhee] told me, ‘It was a good hockey play that went wrong.’ And that, to me, is where it should have stayed. But I’m not the boss.”
Ovechkin’s major penalty/game misconduct combo was his second in three games, although the merits of each can be (and has been) debated.
“It is what it is,” says Ovechkin. “They suspend me. Nothing I’m going to say about it. Obviously I am disappointed.”
Ovechkin will join several of his injured teammates on the sidelines for Thursday’s game. Winger Alexander Semin may be able to return to the lineup in Thursday’s game against Florida, but the morning skate prior to the Panthers game should shed more light on that possibility.
Defenseman Tom Poti is also drawing nearer to a return, but Saturday’s game in Philadelphia sounds more likely as a return date for the veteran blueliner.
Washington is 4-2 in the six previous games Ovechkin has missed this season and the Caps are 6-1-2 without Semin in the lineup.
The Caps are 5-0 against Southeast Division opponents this season. Washington leads the division by seven points, but second-place Atlanta has three games in hand. The Capitals are a dozen points ahead of fourth-place Florida.
“I don’t think we’re going to go 24-0 against our division,” says Boudreau, “but at the same time the league is so tough. Every time you think you’re doing good, you look over your shoulder and there’s five teams breathing down your neck.
“The key is to keep going and keep pushing forward. So I will keep pushing these guys to try to win every game, whether it’s a divisional game or whether it’s a non-divisional game. We think that because we’ve won two divisional games against Florida that they’ll be mad as something and they’ll come in and play with a vengeance.”
The Caps have played the bulk of their schedule against the other teams in the Eastern Conference, but they realize the importance of divisional games at any juncture of the season.
“Anytime you’re playing a divisional game,” says Capitals right wing Matt Bradley, “it’s most important because at the end of the year if you win your division you’re guaranteed a spot in the playoffs and you’re guaranteed a home-ice spot in the playoffs. This year a lot of teams in our division are playing great hockey, like Tampa and Atlanta and then Florida, too. They are teams that aren’t going away. If we want to be successful in the end, we have to win the games against teams in our division.”
Washington’s power play ranks eighth in the NHL with a 22.1% success rate, but it has struggled of late. Despite going just 1-for-18 (5.6%) on the power play in their last half-dozen games, the Caps are 3-1-2 during that span.
While the Caps have been idle since Monday’s game in Raleigh, the Panthers played on Wednesday night at home. Florida won a 6-5 shootout decision in that game, coming back to get the two points after squandering a two-goal lead in the final minute of regulation. That win ended a five-game skid (0-3-2) for the Cats. The Panthers will be playing their third game in four nights on Thursday in the District.
Washington swept a home-and-home set with the Panthers earlier in the season, winning by a 3-1 count in Florida on Nov. 6 and taking a 7-4 decision from the Cats at Verizon Center a night later.
Florida was in the news for an incident that occurred in their Monday night game against the Thrashers in Atlanta. Panthers defenseman Keith Ballard, frustrated after the Panthers allowed a goal to the Thrashers’ Ilya Kovalchuk, swung his stick violently at the goalpost and missed, instead slicing a wound above the ear of Florida goaltender Tomas Vokoun.
Vokoun was prone on the ice for about 10 minutes before he was taken off on a stretcher. The veteran goaltender was not seriously injured and is listed as day-to-day. He will be back in action as soon as he is able to comfortably pull a helmet and mask over his stitched-up head.
Back-up goalie Scott Clemmensen was in goal for Wednesday’s win over the Avalanche, stopping 29 of the 34 shots he faced. Clemmensen was in goal on Nov. 7 against the Caps when Washington scored a season-high seven goals, including five in the third period.