December 15 vs. Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 3:00 p.m. Eastern on www.washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (20-7-6)
Colorado Avalanche (19-10-6)
On the heels of a 6-3 loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Saturday night, the Capitals head west to finish a four-game road swing that started in Toronto. Washington’s next stop is Denver, where it will visit the Colorado Avalanche for the first time in more than three years.
The loss to Toronto was just the second in regulation for Washington in games in which it has scored three or more goals. The Caps are 19-2-4 in games when they light the red lamp three or more times. The Capitals are 1-5-2 in games in which they muster two or fewer tallies.
Despite Saturday’s setback, the Capitals have held up well during a rugged stretch of the regular season. When the Caps visited Toronto for the first time this season on Nov. 21, it started a stretch in which Washington would play 11 of 14 games on the road in a span of 29 days. The Caps will conclude the portion of the schedule this week with road games through the Northwest against Colorado, Vancouver and Edmonton. Washington has forged a 7-2-2 record to date during this road-heavy stretch of the schedule.
The Caps’ loss to the Leafs concluded a smaller span in which Washington played five games in eight nights in five different cities (including one home game). The Capitals were rarely able to find enough time to conduct legitimate structured practice sessions during that time, something they were finally able to do for the first time in nine days before departing for Denver on Monday afternoon.
“Bad habits do creep in and it happens all the time,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “You could see out there today they were happy to practice. We were going over stuff that we’ve been doing for two and a half years and they’re going, ‘You sure I got this guy? You sure I got that guy?’ They forget, and they forget quickly sometimes.”
“Our bad habits creep into the game,” admits Caps forward Brooks Laich. “Things like wingers not coming back to support the defensemen, defensemen having to make too long of passes. Our shift lengths are too long. We’re not responsible in the defensive end. In the offensive zone, we’re too spread out and we’re not getting pucks to the net.
“I’m a big advocate of practice. I think what you do in practice carries over to a game, but unfortunately the schedule doesn’t always let us get as many practices as we’d like.”
Washington’s last “real” practice was on Friday, Dec. 4 prior to the team’s departure that day for Philadelphia. The Caps enjoyed an off-day in Tampa the following Sunday, and they played the Lightning on Monday. A brief practice was held Tuesday morning before the Caps left the Bay area, but it was optional and only one goaltender was on the ice because Semyon Varlamov had suffered a lower body injury in a 3-0 whitewashing of the Bolts the night before.
After a 3-0 loss in Buffalo on Wednesday, the Caps were given Thursday off. They played back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday and had another off-day on Sunday before finally reconvening for an hour’s worth of practice on Monday.
“It seems like it’s been a while,” admits Washington defenseman John Erskine. “We’ve had a lot of rest days and some optionals in there. It feels pretty good to get out there and kind of go over our systems again and get a good practice in.”
“It is nice just to review everything,” says veteran center Brendan Morrison, “review your foundation, review your systems. I think we’ve gotten away from the basics here the last couple of games. Our forecheck – which is a lot of nights our bread and butter where we put pressure on teams, not so much the physicality of it, just the presence of getting in guys’ faces with our speed and our aggressiveness – we’ve been sitting back a lot. We need to get that back to the forefront of our game.”
Along with the Phoenix Coyotes, the Avs have been one of the surprise teams of the Western Conference this season. Coming off a 69-point performance in 2008-09 – the franchise’s worst in 17 years, since its days as the Quebec Nordiques – the Avs were seen by most as a rebuilding team headed for a lot of growing pains this season.
Longtime captain and franchise stalwart Joe Sakic retired over the summer, but a wave of youngsters have stepped up and a few of the team’s vets have had resurgent starts. Free-agent goaltending import Craig Anderson has been great between the pipes for the Avs, too.
Under the tutelage of ex-Caps wingers Joe Sacco (now the Avs’ head coach) and Steve Konowalchuk (a Colorado assistant coach), the team has improbably soared to the top of the Northwest Division standings.
Colorado got out of the gate quickly, sailing to a 10-1-2 start in Sacco’s first season as the team’s bench boss. The Avalanche has held its own since that swift start, posting a 9-9-6 mark since. Colorado has not gone more than two games without collecting a point this season.
The Avs have already played more than half of their road schedule for the season, going 10-7-4 away from the Pepsi Center. Colorado doesn’t have any trips longer than three games the rest of the way, and the Avalanche will have plenty of home cooking down the stretch.
A few of the Avalanche’s top guns have been a bit nicked up lately. Veteran sniper Milan Hejduk – the team’s leading scorer last season – has had some difficulty with his right knee recently. Hejduk has missed half a dozen games this season, two because of a back ailment and four because of the knee woes.
Colorado also played without winger Marek Svatos in Sunday night’s 3-2 victory over the Calgary Flames. Svatos is nursing a groin injury.
Some key kids have helped Colorado’s resurgence this season. Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly both rank among the league’s top half dozen rookie scorers. Freshman T.J. Galiardi ranks 13th and fellow rookie Ryan Wilson checks in at 16th on that list.
With Sunday’s win over Calgary, Colorado wrested first place in the division from the Flames. The Avs limited the Flames to just 21 shots on goal in the game, winning for the fourth time in their last five games.