February 10 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre
Time: 7:30 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap/Capitals Report Podcast at 2 p.m. on www.washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (41-12-6)
Montreal Canadiens (28-26-6)
A trio of significant streaks will be on the line Wednesday night when the Washington Capitals open a three-game road trip against the Canadiens in Montreal. The Caps have won 14 straight games, the longest in the NHL since the Pittsburgh Penguins set the league mark with 17 consecutive victories in 1992-93. Only the ’92-93 Pens and the 1981-82 New York Islanders (15 straight victories) have authored longer streaks than Washington’s current run.
With a win on Wednesday over the Habs, the Caps would be unbeaten in 15 games. The current franchise record is 14, set in 1982-83 and matched the following season.
Finally, Washington has also won five straight games on the road. A victory in Montreal would tie the franchise mark of six straight road wins, set in 1983-84. With 18 road wins this season (18-9-3), the Caps are also within reach of the club’s single-season franchise mark for most road victories in a season (22, set in 1983-84 and matched twice since).
“It’s important,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin of the team’s 14-game winning streak, “but I think if you are going to concentrate on it you are going to lose. It can be [historical] but we just want to win and we want to play.”
Two-day breaks between games have been rare for the Caps, but after the team’s thrilling 5-4 come-from-behind victory over the Penguins at Verizon Center on Sunday, the Capitals had Monday off and Tuesday for practice and travel. The 14 wins were recorded over a span of just 26 days, so a couple days to rest and recharge were welcomed.
“We kind of got on a roll at the right time,” says Caps defenseman Tom Poti. “We had so many games we just kept feeding off that and riding the wave. We haven’t had time to sit and think about it too much other than these last couple days here. We know we have three games left to try to do something special and then we get a rest.”
Washington had to kill its scheduled Saturday practice because of the weather, and the Caps came out sluggish in the first period against the Pens on Sunday. With the grueling schedule they’ve been keeping this season, off days have been important for the Capitals. But getting a good, hard practice in here and there is also very important to the team’s ongoing wellbeing on the ice.
“It’s tough when you don’t get to practice a lot,” says Poti. “It’s tough to stay sharp just playing games. A lot of guys play 10, 15 minutes so it’s always nice to be able to practice and stay sharp in the different situations and the different areas. It was nice to be able to get a full practice in today and try to feed off that this week.”
“I find when we don’t practice a lot little bad habits creep into our game,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “And I think if you ask [Caps coach] Bruce [Boudreau] he’d say the same thing.
“Getting a chance to practice you get a chance to iron everything back out and get guys back disciplined to the system. Hopefully we’ll tighten some things up. We’ve been giving up too many goals lately in the last couple games and only winning by one, having to eke it out. We want to get back to playing better hockey where we are in control of the games right from the start.”
Caps goaltender Jose Theodore tied a franchise record when he won his 10th straight game on Sunday against Pittsburgh. Theodore is certain to play at some point on the trip, but Michal Neuvirth appears to be the likely starter for Wednesday’s game in Montreal.
The Caps have stated their desire to have Neuvirth play for AHL Hershey during the upcoming Olympic break, and the rookie netminder needs to be off the Washington roster for two more Capitals games before the start of the break this weekend in order to be eligible for AHL play during the break.
Given that this is a three-game trip and that all three goaltenders – Theodore, Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov – are on this trip, it seems unlikely that Neuvirth was brought along not to play.
Varlamov hasn’t played in the NHL since he pitched a 3-0 shutout in Tampa Bay on Dec. 7. He suffered a lower body injury in that game, and another, different lower body injury in a subsequent rehab start with Hershey. Varlamov started and won on Sunday in Hershey, and appears to be healthy enough to return to active NHL duty.
“Varly came out of the game [healthy] the other day,” says Boudreau. “He felt a little rusty but he feels real good right now. So he’s ready to come back.
“It’s all good when they’re all playing great. I assume they all will. Neuvy and Theo have definitely been playing great. With Varly, it’s sort of a wait and see scenario.”
Seeking to make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the fifth time in the last six seasons, the Canadiens made wholesale changes to their roster last summer. Despite suffering through some injuries to key personnel, those changes have mostly been positive for the Habs. So it was somewhat surprising on Monday when the architect of those changes – Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey – stepped down from his position.
Gainey, a Hockey Hall of Famer who spent his entire playing career with the Canadiens, turns over the reins to Pierre Gauthier. A former GM of the Ottawa Senators and the Anaheim Ducks, Gauthier had been the Habs’ assistant GM under Gainey for the last several seasons. During that time, the likeable Gauthier has seen a lot of hockey; he’s been a frequent presence at Verizon Center and other East Coast rinks. It will be up to him to chart Montreal’s course over the Olympic break, through the NHL’s March 3 trade deadline and into the future.
Montreal is one of eight teams currently clustered within seven points of one another in the battle for the last three playoff berths in the Eastern Conference. During the life of their current streak, the Capitals have defeated seven of those eight teams. The only one of those eight clubs they have not played and beaten is the Canadiens.
The Habs will be closing out a three-game homestand against Washington. They downed the Penguins on Saturday and were whitewashed by Boston on Sunday.
The Canadiens have won three of their last four, all with Jaroslav Halak in goal. Halak has started eight of Montreal’s last nine games. Carey Price has started all three of the Habs’ previous games with the Capitals this season, going 1-1-1 with a 2.95 GAA and a .910 save pct.
“Montreal has given us fits all year, first of all,” says Boudreau. “They make a management change, they’re going to want to impress the new GM, and they lost the last game at home.
“It doesn’t matter who we play; they all want to break this thing. They all want to be the team that says, ‘We beat Washington.’ We have to be ready for every team all the time.”