January 26 vs. New York Islanders at Nassau County Coliseum
Time: 7:00 pm TV: CSN+ Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on www.washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (33-12-6)
New York Islanders (23-21-8)
Coming off a perfect week in which they won four games in seven days against four of the league’s elite teams in both conferences, the Caps start off another busy week on Tuesday vs. the Islanders on Long Island. The slate for the week ahead is a bit more tightly packed than was last week’s. Washington will play four games in six days beginning with its game on the Island.
This week’s foes feature four teams that all open the week on the outside of the playoff picture. But none of the four teams is more than three points away from the No. 8 spot in its conference, so the Capitals will be playing four desperate hockey teams as they seek to improve upon their six-game winning streak.
This season’s Stanley Cup playoffs are still two and a half months away, but the Caps have been playing playoff-caliber hockey for the better part of January. Washington has scored at least four goals in nine of its last 10 games and it has averaged exactly four goals per game over its last 27 contests – the equivalent of a third of a season – in which it has posted a 20-7 record.
“You’re going to go through peaks and valleys,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “I think we’re playing good right now but I hope it’s not our best. We don’t want to peak right now; you want to start peaking in April, May and June.”
Washington goaltenders Jose Theodore and Michal Neuvirth have allowed two or fewer goals in seven of 11 games this month, posting a 2.62 GAA in the process. That figure would rank 11th in the league if it had been posted over the entirety of the season to date. As it is, the Caps have allowed 2.76 goals per game this season, good for 14th in the league.
“Lately our goaltenders have been playing really good,” says Caps defenseman John Erskine. “In the Detroit game, Jose basically won the game for us. And Neuvy had a good game last game. We’re putting on good back pressure on defense and it’s leading to just a goal or two [against] a game.”
The Capitals have scored at least one power play goal in nine of 11 games this month and have a gaudy 35.9% success rate on the power play since the turn of the calendar.
Washington is a perfect 14-for-14 on the penalty kill in its last three games. The Caps’ penalty killing corps has operated at 80.3% this month despite on bad night in which it surrendered four power play goals in a 7-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“We’re definitely playing well right now,” says Caps winger Mike Knuble. “Before it seemed like we were coughing up leads in the third or we weren’t putting together a full game. [Now] we’re following the game plan and guys are playing hard, battling hard and sticking up for each other. And we’re getting wins out of it.”
“The things that were costing us points in the beginning of the year haven’t lately. We’ve gotten – especially the last couple of games – excellent penalty killing. We’re still taking penalties late; I did it the other day and Nick [Backstrom] did it the other day. It’s stressing the penalty kill, but we’ve responded.
“We gave up the odd lead in the third period, but we’ve just been locking teams down. We’re getting good goaltending, too, and all these things add up to wins. They’re the little things that were slipping away in the beginning of the year.”
Washington sits atop the Eastern Conference standings with 72 points. The Caps are 18-3-3 on home ice, and have the fewest regulation losses at home of any team in the league. The Capitals have also won 15 games on the road, seven shy of the franchise standard set in 1983-84.
The Caps lead the league in scoring by a wide margin; they have scored nearly half a goal more than their closest pursuer. Washington has scored almost a goal a game more than it has given up (3.74 to 2.76) this season.
Riding its third six-game winning streak of the season, the Capitals are seeking to stretch it to seven against the Isles. If they’re successful, it will be the third straight season in which Washington has had a seven-game winning streak.
Prior to Boudreau’s arrival, the Caps had gone 13 straight seasons without winning as many as seven games in succession.
“I think the guys are satisfied with their game,” says Boudreau. “I think we’re getting healthy too, I think it coincided with that. And I think they’re good players. I haven’t mixed up the lines too much, so they’re getting used to each other. I don’t expect us to win every game the rest of the year, but I like the way we’re playing right now.”
After a 1-4-5 start to the 2009-10 season, the Islanders have rebounded and are in a heated chase for the final few playoff berths in the Eastern Conference. The Isles are 10-4-1 in their last 15 games.
Although they’re in the basement of the Atlantic Division standings with 54 points, New York is just a single point out of third place in the division and sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
“Their young players are getting more mature and they’re playing really well,” says Boudreau of the Isles. “I thought they’ve been a good team all along. They just work hard and now they’re getting more experience and people are feeling more comfortable. They’re getting off the injury slide a little bit. I just think they’re a good team.”
New York recently got Rick DiPietro back in its lineup after the goaltender had been sidelined for more than a year because of a knee injury.
Last week, DiPietro authored a 4-0 shutout over divisional rival New Jersey, his first whitewash in nearly two years. In four games since his return, he is 2-2 with a 2.22 GAA and a .917 save pct.
“We think he’s a great goalie, at least I do,” says Boudreau. “He is more like a third defenseman all the time down there. He is better than anybody at handling the puck, [New Jersey’s Martin] Brodeur included. He passes pucks; he makes plays. I know the last time we faced him we had like 13 shots on goal because anytime we put it in [the attack zone] he’d dish it out. If he’s playing he is going to be a formidable foe, as I think [the Islanders] are going to be formidable.”
The Islanders and Caps have played overtime in each of their first three meetings this season, with the Caps taking two of the three. Seven of the last nine meetings between Washington and New York and each of the last four games on Long Island have required more than 60 minutes to settle.