November 3 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Caps Report/Pre-Cap pre-game podcasts at 2 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Toronto Maple Leafs (5-5-1)
Washington Capitals (7-4-0)
Washington completed the October portion of its schedule with a 7-4 record, marking its 20th consecutive winning month. Now the Caps embark upon the 14 games of November, nine of which will be played at Verizon Center. A three-game homestand kicks off the slate, with the Toronto Maple Leafs visiting on Wednesday.
With nine of their 14 November games on home ice, the Capitals are looking to roll up some standings points in the next 28 days. Since Bruce Boudreau took over as Washington's coach three years ago this month, the Caps have forged a dominant 84-23-12 record on Verizon Center ice.
Prior to Saturday’s 7-2 win in Calgary, there had been some hand wringing and teeth gnashing – not within the ranks of the team, but rather, from the outside – over the Caps’ perceived lack of offense this season. While the Caps have scored six fewer goals in 2010-11 than at the same stage last season, they’ve also surrendered six fewer for the same plus-9 goal differential.
Although Washington has scored fewer goals, it still ranks seventh in the league in goals scored per game. And as Saturday's outburst in Calgary showed, they're still capable of opening up a can of offense. Thus far this season in the NHL, a team has scored as many as seven goals in only three of the 163 league games played. The Caps have authored two of those three seven-goal outbursts.
The Caps outscored their foes by a combined 11-4 in the just-completed three-game road trip. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth – who was named the NHL’s rookie of the month for October – opened the trip with his first NHL shutout over Carolina. The journey concluded with the win over the Flames, a game in which Washington overcame an early 2-0 deficit with seven unanswered goals.
In between those two wins was a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild. That setback led to some changes in the Washington lineup, including the insertion of Alexander Semin into the right wing slot on the top line. The combo of Semin, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom combined for four goals and 10 points in Saturday’s win, ensuring an encore performance on Wednesday when the Leafs hit town.
How long the trio remains intact is up to them.
“We’ll see how long this lasts,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “Sometimes they want the puck and they play shinny with it. But when they’re going and they’re doing the right stuff, they’re a pretty good line.”
The Leafs would be thrilled with one good line about now. After roaring out to a 4-0 start this season, Toronto has fallen on hard times. The Leafs are 1-5-1 in seven games since, and their offense has all but dried up. Toronto has scored just nine goals in its last seven games, and it ended its longest shutout drought – more than 167 minutes in length – in 83 years when it tallied two late goals in a home ice 3-2 loss to division rival Ottawa on Tuesday night.
The loss may have been a costly one for the Leafs. Defenseman and team captain Dion Phaneuf left the game with a lower body injury in the second period. He is not likely to be available for Wednesday's game against the Capitals.
Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur are tied for the team lead in goals for Toronto with seven each. Those two players have accounted for more than half of the Maple Leafs’ total of 25 goals on the season.
Toronto coaches and forwards have been stressing the need for players to go to the net, create traffic, get point shots through and all the other usual remedies struggling teams pursue.
“I think a lot of teams that are struggling go to the net hard,” says Caps defenseman John Erskine. “A big team like Philly goes to net hard and gets their goals like that. Toronto has some big guys and some strong players. If they go to the net we’ve got to be ready and just block out.”
Toronto defeated Washington twice in four games last season, winning both of the games played at Air Canada Centre.
“I can only go on when we played them last year,” says Boudreau. “They worked so hard. They outplayed us and they beat us. They got off to a good start [this season]. Like every other team, they go through a little dry spell. I like their team. I like what they’ve done. They’re going to be a real tough opponent.”
J-S Giguere started for the Leafs against the Senators; he was beaten by one penalty shot goal and two power play goals. The Caps are likely to face sophomore Swedish netminder Jonas Gustavsson, who is 1-2 with a 2.36 GAA and a .921 save pct. in his three starts this season.
“He’s a great goaltender,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom of Gustavsson. “He’s big in the net, he has the size and he’s moving well out there. He was good last year but he’s going to be even better this year and is going to continue to develop.”
Defense has not been an issue for the Leafs in 2010-11. Toronto has surrendered just 2.36 goals per game, ninth best in the NHL.
Washington believes it will have its hands full with a Leafs team that is desperate for goals and points, even though Toronto played a grudge match against the Senators on Tuesday night. The Leafs managed 35 shots on goal in that game; they pumped 36 on Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist in a 2-0 loss on Saturday.
“For us it’s just getting back to pucks quick,” says Caps blueliner Karl Alzner of playing a struggling offensive team like the Leafs. “Obviously they’d like to get back to basics; putting pucks in deep, trying to get a cycle going and throwing pucks from anywhere.
“For us, we’ve got to get back to those pucks first and be moving them quickly. And on those second and third chances, we’ve got to make sure we figure out where those open guys are and we take them away and let Neuvy do his thing.”
Neuvirth’s “thing” thus far has to let everything roll off him like water off a duck’s back.
“I’m just going to focus on my game,” says the Caps’ rookie netminder. “Obviously they haven’t scored a lot of goals lately, so they’re probably going to shoot at every opportunity. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready for every shot. They’re going to shoot from everywhere, so I’ve got to be ready the whole time.”