December 28 vs. Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. and Two-Man Advantage Pre-Game show at 6:15 p.m., both on washingtoncaps.com
Carolina Hurricanes (9-22-7)
Washington Capitals (24-8-6)
Monday night brings the Carolina Hurricanes to Verizon Center. The Canes will supply the opposition as the Caps conclude a three-game homestand against their Southeast Division rivals.
This will be the third meeting of the season between the Caps and Canes and the third in a span of four weeks. Although the Canes possess the poorest record in the NHL, games between Washington and Carolina are traditionally tight.
“It’s a pretty desperate club,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau of the Hurricanes. “I think when we play them you can take standings out of the picture. They play because they want to beat us bad. Every game that I’ve been involved in with these guys, it’s been the same thing. It’s the reason I think we were 2-3-1 against them last year and we’ve had two one-goal games [with them] this year. It’s a divisional game and they will play very hard.”
The Capitals have taken the previous two tilts this season, winning 3-2 in Carolina on Nov. 30 and earning a 4-3 overtime victory at Verizon on Dec. 11. The Caps are a perfect 8-0 against Southeast Division foes this season; they are the only team in the league with a perfect mark against the clubs in their own division.
“They’re still a good team,” says Caps captain Chris Calrk of the Canes. “Their place in the standings doesn’t show what a good team they are. They’ve got a lot of the same players they had last year, they’re just going through a bad stretch. And [Cam] Ward is one of the best goalies in the league. It’s something where we know we’ve played well, but we have to continue to play well. It’s not something that’s just going to come by just jumping on the ice.”
Washington is looking to win its fourth game in a row and its sixth in succession at home. In their two previous games on this homestand the Caps toppled Buffalo and New Jersey, the Northeast and Atlantic Division leaders, respectively.
The Caps continue to lead the league in goals scored, but Washington has become progressively stingier defensively as the season has worn on. After allowing 61 goals in their first 20 games (an average of 3.05 per contest), the Capitals have surrendered just 40 goals in 18 games since (2.22 per game). As a result, the Caps have climbed to 11th in the NHL’s goals against standings with an average of 2.66 allowed per game.
“I think the first month we were winning or losing a 6-5 game or winning 6-4 or things like that,” says Boudreau. “I think we’ve been pretty reliable for the most part [since then] and I think it has coincided with us dropping our penalties down by an awful lot. We went from the first 12-15 games to averaging five and six minors a game to averaging two or three a game. I think that really helps a lot when you’re talking about goals against.”
Boudreau is correct. The Caps were shorthanded 83 times in their first 20 games this season, but they’ve had to kill only 60 penalties in their last 18 contests.
While better discipline has played a role in Washington’s declining goals against average, the team has made a stronger commitment to playing its system and playing well in its own end of the ice, too.
“That’s been a focus of ours for sure,” says Caps center Brendan Morrison. “The first month of the season, it was more of, ‘Okay, if we outscore these guys we’ll win the game. No matter how much we give up, we’ll score more.’ But now we’re getting that mentality where if we play better defense it’s going to lead to more offense for us. You don’t really have to give up anything in your zone to hamper your offense. If you’re playing in your zone, you’re not going to have the puck. Whereas is you’re playing good, solid defense you’re forcing turnovers in the neutral zone you’re going to go on the attack. It’s been working for us.”
Each of the Caps’ wins on its current streak came with rookie Michal Neuvirth minding the twine.
“If you look at his first couple starts, which were really mediocre,” says Boudreau of Neuvirth, “then you go to the Edmonton start [on Dec. 19], he didn’t have a lot of work to do but he was pretty solid. Then you go to the Buffalo start [on Dec. 23], [he was] pretty solid. And he was more solid [Saturday against New Jersey] in allowing five goals in three games. He’s getting better with the more work he gets.”
Although Neuvirth has started and won three straight games, veteran Jose Theodore is expected to be back between the pipes for Monday’s game with the Hurricanes. He is 15-11-3 with a 2.65 GAA and a .909 save pct. against Carolina.
The Caps are tied for the fewest regulation losses in the NHL this season with eight. Washington has earned at least a point in 30 of its 38 games to date this season, and it has held a lead at one point or another in 37 of its 38 games. The Capitals have led in the second period or later in 36 of their 38 games.
After recording two wins in October and three in November, the Hurricanes have notched four victories in December with two games remaining this month.
Carolina won its first two games of this month but has gone 2-5-2 since. The Canes have surrendered nearly four goals per game in those last nine contests. The Hurricanes have surrendered an average of 3.58 goals per game this season, the highest mark in the league.
Carolina is just 1-13-4 on the road this season. The Hurricanes opened the campaign going winless in their first 13 road contests (0-10-3).
Ward has started six straight games in goal for Carolina. He is 12-5-3 with a 2.61 GAA and a .919 save pct. lifetime against the Capitals, but Ward is just 4-4-2 with a 3.25 GAA and a .904 save pct. against Washington in the District.