January 12 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at St. Pete Times Forum
Time: 7:30 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Plus (Find CSN Plus on your cable system) Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (27-11-6)
Tampa Bay Lightning (17-17-10)
For the middle match of a three-game road trip, the Caps carry a three-game winning streak to Tampa Bay.
Washington is making its second visit of the season to Tampa. The Caps came into town on the heels of an 8-2 road victory over the Flyers when they visited the Lightning in early December. That visit resulted in a 3-0 Washington win, the last game in which Semyon Varlamov played goal for the Caps before going on injured reserve.
Once again, the Capitals are hitting Tampa after scoring eight goals in a prior Saturday night road game. This time Washington comes in after putting an 8-1 beating on the Thrashers in Atlanta on Saturday.
The Capitals have scored 17 goals in the life of their three-game winning streak, and Alex Ovechkin has scored just one of them. In Saturday night’s win over the Thrashers, 16 of the 18 Capitals skaters registered at least a point.
The Caps are averaging 3.61 goals per game, tops in the NHL. Washington is well ahead of second-place Chicago (3.22) in that department.
Not only are the Caps seeking to extend their winning streak to four games when they face the Bolts on Tuesday, they will also be seeking to push their winning streak against the Lightning to 13 straight games. The Capitals have not tasted defeat against the Bolts during Bruce Boudreau’s tenure as the team’s head coach.
In Saturday’s win over the Atlanta, rookie Caps goaltender Michal Neuvirth kept the Thrashers at bay in the first period, stopping all 18 shots he faced in the first stanza. The Caps got going offensively and Neuvirth made 38 saves on the night to earn his fifth win of the season.
Neuvirth struggled a bit in his first two starts this season, but the 21-year-old Czech netminder has been excellent for the last three weeks.
After going 0-2 with a 4.54 GAA and an .845 save pct. in his first two starts of 2009-10, Neuvirth is 5-2 with a 2.15 GAA and a .928 save pct. in seven starts since. He has surrendered two or fewer goals in six of those last seven starts.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t happen overnight,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “We’re in Tampa and [the Lightning’s Vincent] Lecavalier is the best example. It takes time to see what this league is like, get acclimated to the league, understand how hard you have to work to be good in this league. Everybody saw the latent in him and he’s now playing the way we thought he could.”
“And [Neuvirth] did it last year in the American League, but this is a different animal than the American League.”
Neuvirth actually started the 2008-09 season – his first as a professional – with South Carolina of the ECHL. He got into 13 games with the Stingrays before being promoted to Hershey. Neuvirth played 17 regular season games with the Bears and got into five games with Washington as well. He started and won 5-1 here in Tampa last Feb. 14 in his NHL debut.
Neuvirth’ notable characteristics in net include a quick glove hand, strong rebound control and a cool demeanor.
“Nothing seems to bother him,” says Boudreau. “That’s good. He can shake off a bad performance. And he buckles down and I think he stays pretty calm in the net. He doesn’t let a goal get to him.
“When a golfer has a bad hole, the good ones can shake that off and forget about it and just get ready for the next hole. He’s like that, and some goalies can’t do that. The one goal bothers them to the point where [they give up] two and three before they settle down. He’s just as cool as a cucumber back there.”
“I just play my game,” says Neuvirth. “I don’t really think about what happened. I can’t take that back, anyway. It’s tough when you let in a bad goal.”
Neuvirth didn’t let in many bad goals last spring. He was dominant the Calder Cup playoffs, going 16-6 with four shutouts, a 1.92 GAA and a .932 save pct. in helping to lead Hershey to its 10th championship. He became the first goalie in AHL history to post shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of a playoff series (against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) and he won the Jack Butterfield Trophy as the AHL’s playoff MVP.
“It’s a great experience because there is nothing like playoffs to really make you gain experience,” says Caps goaltender coach Arturs Irbe. “One playoffs – even if it’s only 10 or 15 games – could be worth a whole season or two regular seasons of experience. Especially becoming a winner really helps, but that probably gives you a legitimate shot at becoming an NHLer.”
A month older than Varlamov, the 21-year-old Neuvirth is one of three young and highly prized goaltending prospects currently in the Capitals’ system. Varlamov and 20-year-old Braden Holtby, currently setting the AHL on fire with Hershey, are the other two.
“It’s his attention to the detail and his attitude that will make the difference,” declares Irbe. “Like everybody else he has to want to win and want to be here and prove night in and night out what he can do.”
Since the beginning of December, the Caps have been especially strong on special teams. Washington is 18-for-68 (26.5%) on the power play and is 48-for-56 (85.7%) while shorthanded during that stretch. The Caps have allowed more than one power play goal in a game just once in those 17 games while scoring multiple power play goals five times. Washington is 11-6 since the start of December.
With 44 points, the Lightning is tied with Atlanta for second place in the Southeast Division. Tampa Bay has had its ups and downs this season, but it is 6-3-1 in its last 10 games.
The Lightning is coming off a busy weekend. The Bolts had a 3-0 lead over the Devils in New Jersey on Friday night when the lights dimmed and the game had to be suspended in the middle of the second period. The Lightning traveled to Philadelphia where it suffered a 4-1 loss on Saturday, and then it returned to New Jersey on Sunday where it finished the suspended game, winning 4-2. So the Bolts’ game with the Caps on Tuesday is the team’s fourth in five nights.
Tuesday’s game with Washington starts a stretch in which the Bolts play six of their next nine games on home ice. Tampa Bay started the season without a regulation loss in its first nine games (5-0-4) on home ice but is just 5-5-1 at St. Pete Times Forum since.
Mike Smith has started eight of the Lightning’s last nine games. He is 5-3-1 with a 2.57 GAA and a .919 save pct. during that stretch. For the season, Smith is 10-11-6 with a 2.94 GAA and a .906 save pct.
Sophomore center Stephen Stamkos is seventh in the NHL with 23 goals in 44 games. He has already matched his goal total of his 2008-09 rookie campaign (in which he played 79 games) and is now just two points shy of equaling his point total from his first season in the league.
Although Tampa Bay’s power play ranks 20th overall in the league with a 17% success rate on the power play, the Bolts are just 7-for-58 (12.1%) with the extra man in their last 16 games.
Notes: Caps defenseman John Erskine – playing some of his best hockey of late – left Saturday’s game with Atlanta early in the third period and did not return. He is day-to-day with an upper body injury. Tyler Sloan will step in for Erskine against the Bolts on Tuesday if big No. 4 is unable to go … Varlamov skated at Kettler Capitals Iceplex under the watchful eye and stern direction of Capitals strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish. With Nemish pulling the trigger, Varlamov faced some live shots.