December 9 vs. Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Capitals Report/Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (19-5-6)
Buffalo Sabres (16-9-2)
After wins in Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, the Caps head to Buffalo for a Wednesday night visit with the Sabres. Washington is looking to run the table on its three-game road trip and to extend its overall winning streak to seven games.
Between March of 2001 and April of 2008, the Caps went more than seven years without having a winning streak as long as five games. Including a seven-game streak that ended the 2007-08 season and propelled the Caps to a Southeast Division title, Washington has now had six winning streaks of five or more games in the two years since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the Capitals’ bench.
The Caps have been one of the league’s foremost offensive teams for a couple of seasons now. But recently, Washington has also been playing some stellar defensive hockey.
The Caps are off to the best start in team history through 30 games and they have more points than any other team in the league. They lead the league by a significant margin in goals per game and they feature the NHL’s top power play. If the Caps can continue to display their recent defensive stinginess, they’ll be even more difficult to play against than they already are.
After allowing 61 goals in their first 20 games this season, Washington has battened down its hatches. The Caps have allowed just 19 goals in their last 10 games, and just 13 of those tallies have come at even-strength. Washington has whitewashed two opponents in that span, matching its total for all of last season.
“It’s a big difference if you look at the last 10 games,” says Caps goaltender Jose Theodore. “It’s a big improvement in the way we play as a team and the way the penalty killing [corps] has been playing. We know we have the offense, but then when we start playing solid defense like that, it just makes me and Varly’s job a lot easier. You just have to make the big saves when it counts, and if you do that technically you’re only going to allow one or two goals a game.”
During their current six-game winning streak, Washington has outscored opponents by a combined 25-9. The Caps have gotten 22 multiple-goal games from nine different players in 30 games this season. In its earlier six-game winning streak this season, Washington outscored the opposition by a combined 22-14.
“I think maybe at the beginning of the year we figured we could just outscore teams every night,” says Caps forward Brendan Morrison. “Some nights the puck is going to go in and some nights it’s not going to go in as much. I think we’ve tried to buy into the concept that better defense we play, the more offense we create.”
Improved discipline has also played a part in Washington’s improved defense.
“When you take more penalties you give the other team momentum and if they get a goal then maybe you start opening up more and it creates more scoring chances against,” says Theodore. “When we’re really disciplined, we’re pretty much in control. We don’t panic and we make it easy on ourselves.”
Everyone expected the Caps to score a lot of goals this season. After Monday night’s 3-0 blanking of the Bolts in Tampa Bay, Washington’s team goals against average dropped to 2.67 on the season. That’s fourth-best in the Eastern Conference and 10th in the NHL.
“It’s a credit to the system and the way the players are playing right now,” says Theodore. “We’re really gelling as a team and as a group.”
The Caps and Sabres met once previously this season. Buffalo visited Washington on Thanksgiving Eve and the Caps blanked the Sabres 2-0 behind the first regular season shutout of goaltender Semyon Varlamov’s career.
Washington won that game without the benefit of a power play, the first time in more than seven years that the Caps had gone through an entire regular season game without a single man-advantage opportunity.
Buffalo followed that loss in the District with a four-game winning streak. But the Sabres have lost their last two, scoring just one goal in those two contests. Most recently, Buffalo was the victim of Martin Brodeur’s NHL-record-tying 103rd career shutout on Monday night.
Buffalo’s attack has underachieved this season. Thomas Vanek leads the Sabres with eight goals thus far. Washington has seven players who would lead Buffalo in goals scored and six skaters who would lead the Sabres in scoring.
The Sabres do have decent balance. They’ve got half a dozen players who have scored between six and eight goals this season.
What the Sabres do have going for them is Ryan Miller between the pipes. Miller’s 1.90 GAA and his .935 save pct. place him at the top of the NHL’s heap in both categories. Miller carries a heavy workload every year, and he is doing so again in 2009-10. He has started 24 of the Sabres’ first 27 games, including each of the last seven.
Recently, Buffalo assigned back-up netminder Patrick Lalime to its Portland affiliate in the AHL in an effort to get him some playing time.
Rookie defenseman Tyler Myers ranks fifth on the Sabres in scoring and he leads all Buffalo blueliners in scoring. Myers is also averaging 22 minutes a night, tops on the Sabres. Myers has skated 20 or more minutes in 21 straight games, and in 23 of 27 contests overall.
Wednesday’s game against Washington is the fourth game in a season-high five-game homestand for the Sabres. Buffalo is 1-2 in the first three games of that homestand. Chicago visits on Friday before the Sabres hit the road for three straight and five out of seven leading up to the NHL’s holiday break. Buffalo is a perfect 5-0 against Western Conference opponents.
Notes: Caps goaltender Semyon Varlamov ran his career record to 16-1-3 with Monday’s shutout over the Lightning. Only two goaltenders in NHL history had more wins after the first 20 decisions of their respective NHL careers. Montreal’s Ken Dryden was 17-1-2 after the first 20 decisions of his NHL career and the Blues’ (and former Capital) Brent Johnson was 17-3 at the 20-decision mark.