December 23 vs. Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Capitals Report/Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. and Two-Man Advantage Pre-Game show at 6:30 on www.washingtoncaps.com
Buffalo Sabres (22-10-3)
Washington Capitals (22-8-6)
After playing 13 of their last 17 games on the road, the Caps finally return home for a sustained homestand around the holidays. But the Capitals aren’t coming home to a picnic. Washington begins the homestand against the division leading teams in each of the other two Eastern Conference divisions. Washington hosts Buffalo on Wednesday in the third battle between the two clubs in the last month.
Each club has posted a whitewash against the visiting opponent in the Caps-Sabres series this season. The Capitals’ Semyon Varlamov blanked Buffalo by a 2-0 count on Nov. 25 and the Sabres’ Ryan Miller returned the favor with a 3-0 whitewash of Washington on Dec. 9.
The Caps have put the hammer down against Southeast Division opponents, going 8-0 against the other members of their own division this season. But the Caps are 14-8-6 against the rest of the league. They are 1-1 against the Sabres and 0-2-1 against the Devils. It’s certainly possible that they could encounter one or both of those teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring.
“I think every time you play a team in your conference,” says Caps goalie Jose Theodore, “you try to make a statement because you are going to play them again and there’s a good chance you’re going to play them sooner or later in the playoffs.
“Looking at Buffalo, they’re a team that we shut down once and they did the same thing to us last time. We know it’s going to be a tight game. They’ve got a real good defensive system with a good goalie. It’s the same thing with New Jersey when you have Brodeur in night. He is pretty tough to beat and they’re a really good team. Those are really good tests for us at midseason.”
“For your own sake you want try to beat that mentality into the other team that they can’t beat you,” says Caps defenseman Tom Poti. “There is something hovering over them that they can’t beat you. You want to try to beat everybody you play against, but the teams you could potentially face in the playoffs you want to let them know that if they do face you they are going to be in for a real tough battle.
“It’s nice to go into a playoff round knowing that you’ve beaten a team a lot more times than they’ve beaten you and have that little mental game over you.”
The Caps played well defensively on their recently concluded road trip. Washington struggled in a 6-3 loss at Toronto on Dec. 12, but they had gone nine days without a structured practice at that point. Beginning last Monday, the Caps were on the ice every day through Saturday. They went 2-1 in the Western portion of the trip, and it wasn’t the defense that let them down in their lone loss.
“I thought we played really good,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “I think 26 was the most shots we allowed in the three games. And I thought the scoring chances were really limited in all three games. In the Vancouver game we gave up five scoring chances the whole game. I thought we did a great job with that.”
With the recent recall of Karl Alzner from AHL Hershey, the Caps are now carrying nine defensemen on their roster. Boudreau believes the numbers make for some healthy competition.
“I think there is a little bit of pressure on the defense,” he says. “We’ve got nine NHL defensemen on our roster right now. I think every time somebody gets in the lineup they’re saying, ‘I’ve got to play a great game or else I’m not going to play anymore.’”
The Sabres have opened up a six-point lead over the Boston Bruins in the Northeast Division standings.
Since enduring an 0-3-1 patch in mid-November, the Sabres have been rolling. They are 10-3-1 in their last 14 games despite going 6-for-54 (11.1%) on the power play in those 14 contests. Buffalo is just 3-for-46 (6.5%) with the extra man in its last dozen games.
Over that same 14-game stretch, the Sabres have successfully snuffed 39 of 44 (88.6%) of their opponents’ power play chances.
Discipline is part of the reason for Buffalo’s success. The Sabres have had to kill more penalties than they’ve had power plays of their own only three times in the last 14 games and only seven times in 35 games all season. (By way of comparison, Capitals’ opponents have had more power plays than Washington has had in 15 games this season.) In their two previous games against Washington this season, the Sabres have had to kill off a penalty against the vaunted Capitals power play just once in 120 minutes.
“They’re a disciplined team and to have as good a goals against average as they have as a team it’s because they are so disciplined,” says Theodore. “That’s the biggest thing. You look around the league and a lot of games are won or lost on the power play. They are really disciplined and that makes it easier for them defensively. We’re just going to have to be really sharp and smart about the way we play because we know they’re going to be smart.”
Poti also believes the Sabres are disciplined, but he thinks the Caps can still manage to help their own cause in that regard.
“Obviously they’re a team that’s very disciplined and they don’t take too many penalties,” says Poti. “But at the same time, I think if we play our game and we do what we can do we can try to suck them in and draw them into penalties by having our forwards go hard to the net and crashing bodies and things like that. You earn your own penalties with the way that you play.
“If we go out and play hard, we have some of the toughest forwards in the league to contain. If those guys do what they know how to do, I think we can earn a couple of power plays for ourselves and score a few goals.
Buffalo is not an offensive juggernaut, ranking 22nd in the league with an average of 2.63 goals per game. The Sabres have been shutout four times this season and they’ve been held to a single goal on six other occasions. Buffalo has scored two or fewer goals in 16 of its 35 games this season.
Lately, however, the Sabres have had a bit more on the ball offensively. After scoring 50 goals in the season’s first 21 games for an average of 2.38 tallies per tilt during that span, the Sabres have ramped up to 42 goals in their last 14 games, an average of exactly three goals per game.