March 14 vs. Chicago Blackhawks at United Center
Time: 12:30 pm TV: NBC Radio: 820AM, 1500AM, 106.7 FM and XM
Washington Capitals (45-14-9)
Chicago Blackhawks (44-18-5)
After going 3-1-1 on a five-game homestand, Washington hits the road for a four-game, eight-day trip. The first stop is Windy City, where the Caps will stare down one of the heavyweights of the Western Conference in the Chicago Blackhawks.
It has been nearly two years since Washington last traveled to Chicago, and that March 19, 2008 visit did not go well. The Blackhawks scored early and often, rolling up a 4-0 first-period lead on their way to a 5-0 triumph over the Capitals. That game proved to be the last one in a Capitals sweater for longtime Washington goaltender Olie Kolzig. It would also be the final loss of the 2007-08 regular season for the Caps; they won seven straight to close the campaign and take the first of three consecutive Southeast Division crowns.
This time around, things are different. Washington has already clinched the Southeast title and it holds a 14-point bulge over second-place Pittsburgh in the chase for the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. With 99 points on the season, the Capitals have already amassed more than they had in the entire 2007-08 season (94), and they still have 14 games remaining.
Most recently, the Caps dropped a 3-2 Friday night contest to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the final game of their homestand.
“It’s funny because we think we’re a good hockey club,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “But every time we lose, there are critics all over the world saying we’re not good enough defensively, we can’t check and [asking] ‘how can that style of hockey win?’ So it gets you mad and you go out there and try your best to win.
“We didn’t play good and we didn’t play smart [Friday] night, but it’s the first time since the Olympic break that we lost in regulation. So we’re mad at ourselves for going 4-1-1. We’ve set the bar pretty high. [Sunday] will be one of those games where we think, from what everybody tells us, we’re playing the best team in the league [in Chicago].
“They say [the Blackhawks] have the best defense, the best forwards. It’s going to be a great test. We think we’ll get their best effort. It’s going to be the NBC game of the week, so we’ll at least be able to get to judge where we think we are by playing them. We’ll just move guys in and out of the lineup and we’ll see where it leads.”
The Capitals are 7-2-2 in their last 11 road games. With their next road victory, the Caps will reach the 20-win plateau on the road for the third consecutive season. Washington is still three road victories shy of matching the single-season franchise mark of 22 established in 1983-84 and matched in 1992-93 and 1993-94. The Caps earned 21 wins away from Verizon Center last season.
Caps defenseman Mike Green leads all NHL blueliners in scoring, and he notched his 50th assist of the season in Friday night’s game. Green joins Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy and Kevin Hatcher as just the fourth Caps defenseman ever to record 50 or more assists in a season.
Stevens holds the single-season mark with 61 and Hatcher was the most recent Washington rearguard to reach the plateau when he totaled 50 in 1990-91.
“I think overall we have better forwards and more offensive forwards, so that helps,” says Boudreau, of Green’s achievement. “The fact that he’s very talented is the main reason. He is very skilled, he can see the play and he can make those stick-to-stick passes anytime he desires. That’s why he should win the Norris [Trophy].”
Washington added three new players at the NHL’s March 3 trading deadline. Those players joined the Capitals the following day, at the start of the team’s five-game homestand. Getting out on the road with the Caps for the first time should give Scott Walker, Eric Belanger and Joe Corvo a chance to bond with their new teammates.”
“You don’t have five-game homestands a lot,” says Caps winger Mike Knuble. “I think we’re all looking forward to getting on the road and spending some time out there in a different environment. Sometimes at home you get too comfortable over a long period of time so it’s good to get on the road.”
“You look at these schedules as soon as they come out [in July] and friends and family decide always to come over when it’s a long homestand,” says Boudreau. “We’ve got some guys with 10 people staying at their place and it’s tough to focus. In that respect it’s good to get on the road. But we’ll be on the road for four games and we’ll be dying to get home because we miss our fans and our families.
“I guess [being] anywhere too long is not good. You’d like to be able to play two games at home, and then you go on the road for one and then you play one at home and go on the road for two throughout the whole season. But unfortunately that doesn’t work.”
The trip starts with a tough tilt against one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
“It’s a huge test [Sunday] in Chicago,” says Knuble. “It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere. I think we all know that going in. It can overwhelm you if you’re not ready for that, but as long as you are then I think you’ll be okay.
“Chicago will be like jumping right into it. That’s now a very great place to play. For years it wasn’t, but now it’s one of the better arenas in the league and they have a good young team. It’s a huge test, so it will be fun.”
While the Caps own the league’s best home record at 26-4-4, Chicago is second on the list in that category at 26-7-2. The Blackhawks have made a lot of hay at home after the first 60 minutes, however. They are 10-0-2 in overtime and shootout games at United Center this season.
Like the Capitals, the Blackhawks are trying to settle on a No. 1 netminder between now and the start of the playoffs. Ex-Caps goalie Cristobal Huet started the season as Chicago’s top guy in goal, but his later struggles Antti Niemi a chance.
Huet started for the Hawks in their Saturday afternoon loss at Philadelphia. Niemi is expected to get the call on Sunday afternoon against the Capitals.
Regardless of which goaltender carries the mail for Chicago the spring, the Blackhawks defense is stingy when it comes to shots allowed. The Hawks have surrendered the fewest shots on goal this season.
With gritty forward Adam Burish coming off injured reserve earlier this week, the Blackhawks are completely healthy for the first time this season.
The Hawks had won three of four prior to Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia. That game was scoreless going into the third period, and the Hawks held a 2-1 lead with less than three minutes remaining. But late goals by Philly’s Scott Hartnell and Chris Pronger sent the Hawks home without a point. Pronger’s game-winner was scoredf with 2.1 seconds remaining in regulation.
Notes: Last season marked the first time since 1989-90 that both the Capitals and the Blackhawks advanced past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the same season.