October 28 vs. Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center
Time: 8:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Pre-game Podcast on washingtoncaps.com at 2 p.m.
Washington Capitals (6-3-0)
Minnesota Wild (3-3-2)
Twice this season the Capitals have played games against teams on short rest, teams playing either their second game in as many nights or their third game in four nights, or both.
Those situations have twice resulted in wins for Washington, first on Oct. 16 at Nashville and again on Oct. 23 against Atlanta. Both of those games featured a rested Caps team against a weary opponent, and in both games Washington fell behind early – and trailed going into the game’s final frame – only to rally in the third period and overtime for the win.
On Thursday, the shoe is on the other foot for the Capitals. A night after a 3-0 victory over the Hurricanes in Carolina – and some 18 hours after a two and a half hour flight to Minneapolis – Washington will take on a rested Minnesota Wild team that has been sitting at home idle since a 3-2 shootout loss to the Kings on Monday.
Not only that, the Caps will be heading into a building where they’ve never won a game. Washington is 0-4-1 in five previous visits to St. Paul since the Wild came into the league back in 2000-01.
While Washington will certainly need its legs late in Thursday night’s game against the Wild, the Caps will also need to withstand the home team’s early push. Minnesota has outscored its foes by a combined 7-3 in the first period of games at Xcel Energy Center this season.
In Wednesday’s win at Carolina, the Caps got the early lead and held on. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth authored the first shutout of his NHL career, making 29 saves to lead the Capitals to their second win in succession.
Getting a lead on the road has been a rarity for Washington this season. The Caps held the lead for about 50 minutes of Wednesday’s win over the Hurricanes, or about 10 times as long as they’d held the scoreboard advantage in their previous three road games combined.
“First game on a long road trip,” says Caps center David Steckel, who drew the primary assist on Matt Hendricks’ game-winner on Wednesday, “we needed to make sure that we were playing disciplined. We took some stupid penalties, but for the most part discipline meant to us getting pucks deep, getting pucks out and playing the way that we know how to play and cycling. We have a pretty big team, so we can use that to our advantage.
“I thought everybody was going tonight and it was good to see.”
The Caps also got a late insurance goal from their top forward trio of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble. That tally was the first Washington score that all three players had been on the ice for in two weeks.
Neuvirth outdueled Carolina’s Cam Ward, matching the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner save for save. The 22-year-old Washington rookie is now tied for the NHL lead with six victories, and he is a good bet to get the net again on Thursday in Minnesota.
The returns to health of veterans Mike Green and Matt Bradley played a role in Washington’s win at Carolina, too. Green’s availability for 20-plus minutes (he logged just over five minutes in Saturday’s win over Atlanta, all of it on the power play) for the first time in two weeks eased the burden on a taxed Washington blueline corps, and made the other five rearguards better.
Bradley recorded a team-leading five hits, and he and his linemates gave Caps coach Bruce Boudreau consistently solid shifts all night.
“[They’re a] big part of our team,” says Boudreau. “When the fourth line is going – or the energy line, whatever you want to call them – and is playing good, we can roll all forward lines. I don’t know if any forward had 20 minutes tonight. And when they don’t do that, we usually are successful.”
Having Hendricks, Steckel and Bradley skate double-digit minutes helped diminish the ice-time load on the Caps’ top six forwards, which should leave them fresher for Thursday’s tilt against the Wild.
“We’ve got [another game Thursday],” says Boudreau. “You play 24 or 25 minutes, you don’t get a chance to recover as a forward. It’s a lot easier playing those kind of minutes as a defenseman, but as a forward it’s pretty exhausting. And we’re meeting a team that’s waiting for us, so it’s doubly important that we had our minutes controlled tonight.”
With goaltender Semyon Varlamov on the sidelines, rookie Braden Holtby has been recalled from AHL Hershey. Holtby, who is 4-0-1 with a 1.97 GAA and a .933 save pct. with the Bears this season, has yet to make his NHL debut. Thursday’s game in Minnesota seemed like a good spot for a Holtby start, but it will be tough not to go back to Neuvirth after his splendid performance in Carolina.
Neuvirth has also shown the ability to perform well in the second of back-to-back games as a pro.
Including the postseason, Neuvirth started back-to-back games on 17 occasions over the past two seasons in the AHL. In the second of those back-to-back games, he posted a stellar record of 14-3 with a 1.77 GAA and a .938 save pct. He allowed two or fewer goals in 13 of those 17 games.
The only time Neuvirth started both ends of back-to-backs this season, he downed the New Jersey Devils 7-2 with a 31-save effort in the second of those two tilts.
After a dismal 1-4-2 pre-season, the Wild opened its regular season slate with a pair of losses – one of them in a shootout – to the Carolina Hurricanes in Helsinki. Since returning to North America, the Wild have played a schedule that has been heavily tilted towards Northeast Division play.
Minnesota has played four of its six games on this continent against divisional foes, and it has won three of those contests. Facing Edmonton and Vancouver twice each thus far, the Wild has downed the Oilers twice and the Canucks once to account for all three of the wins it has earned in its first eight games.
The Wild won three of the first four games they played after returning from Europe but have dropped their last two, including a 3-2 shootout setback to the Kings on home ice on Monday.
Minnesota was a torrid 12-for-27 (44.4%) on the man-advantage in its first six games of the season. The team’s power play accounted for more than half (12 of 20) of the team’s offensive output in those half-dozen games.
The Wild has scored a total of three goals in the last two games, going 0-for-8 on the power play during that span. Minnesota’s power play is clicking at a 34.3% rate overall, and it’s at 43.5% in home games
In each of the six games on North American soil, the Wild’s offense has mustered 25 or fewer shots on goal. Minnesota has been outshot in seven of its eight games this season.
Notes: Wild center John Madden is slated to play in the 800th game of his NHL career on Thursday against Washington. He would become the 15th active center to achieve that milestone.