November 5 vs. Boston Bruins at Verizon Center Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap pre-game podcast at 2 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Boston Bruins (7-2-0)
Washington Capitals (8-4-0)
Of the four losses the Capitals have suffered in their first dozen games of 2010-11, the Boston Bruins have been responsible for half of them. The B’s handed the Caps a pair of consecutive setbacks late last month, sweeping both ends of a home-and-home set.
Washington gets a chance at redemption on Friday when the Bruins pay their second – and final – regular season visit to Verizon Center.
Boston’s visit is the middle match of a three-game homestand. The Caps opened up the home set with a 5-4 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night. The win was Washington’s second in succession and the team’s fourth in their last five games.
Playing against an offensively challenged and tired Leafs team that had lost to Ottawa the night before, the Caps seemed to have Wednesday’s game well in hand with a 3-1 lead heading into the third. The whole thing unraveled like a cheap sweater when the Leafs erupted for three goals in a span of 3:03 against Caps goaltender Michal Neuvirth early in the third period.
Neuvirth, who was named the NHL’s rookie of the month for October on Tuesday, had allowed a grand total of three third-period goals in his previous 10 starts prior to the game against Toronto.
The Caps’ netminder, who leads all NHL goaltenders with eight victories, shut the door the rest of the way and stopped both shots he faced in the shootout to enable the Capitals to escape with a victory.
Boudreau noted some fatigue in Neuvirth during Wednesday’s game against Toronto.
“I told [goaltending coach Arturs Irbe] after the second period,” begins Boudreau, “‘Michal looks a little tired today.’ And even though they only had one goal, I was a little worried about it. They got ahead and then when we tied it up, Michal in the shootout was outstanding. He was just on top of his game.
“Winners do that. Maybe the best in history was [former Boston goalie and Hockey Hall of Famer] Gerry Cheevers. He could left five in and then make the great save at the end of the game to preserve the win, because it’s all about the win. Michal seems to be grooming the same way.”
Wednesday’s game marked just the third time in Neuvirth’s 11 starts this season that he had allowed more than two goals in a game. That’s a remarkable level of consistency for a 22-year-old rookie goaltender.
“It’s been surprisingly great,” says Boudreau of Neuvirth’s consistency. “We never thought that at this stage of the season – being in November now – that we’d be using only one goalie, even though [Braden] Holtby is probably going to play sooner rather than later. But Michal’s consistency has been outstanding and we hope it continues.”
With five power play goals in eight chances over its last two games, Washington’s extra-man unit has roared up to 10th in the league with a success rate of 19.6%. The Capitals stand fifth in the NHL with a penalty killing rate of 89.1% and the Caps are now 18th in the league in face-off prowess with a 49.4% rate in the circle.
More so than many teams in the league, the Caps know they’ll have their hands full with the Bruins on Friday. Boston has won three straight games and is the owner of the league’s best goal differential at plus-16. The Bruins are a perfect 5-0 on the road, having set a club mark for consecutive road wins at the start of a season.
The Bruins, who opened the season in Prague with a pair of games against the Phoenix Coyotes, will be closing out a three-game road trip with Friday’s visit to the District. In the previous stops on their tour, the B’s blanked the Senators on Saturday and bounced Buffalo by a 5-2 count on Wednesday.
Rejuvenated netminder Tim Thomas has been spearheading Boston’s strong start. The 2009 Vezina Trophy winner suffered through a pedestrian 2009-10 season that led to talk of a trade or perhaps even a buyout. But after undergoing off-season hip surgery, the 36-year-old Thomas has opened 2010-11 by winning each of his first seven starts. And he’s compiled some otherworldly numbers in the process.
A ninth-round (217th overall) choice of the Quebec Nordiques in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, Thomas has three shutouts and has allowed a grand total of five goals in seven games. Only once – in Wednesday’s win over the Sabres – has he allowed as many as two goals in a game. Thomas sports a microscopic 0.72 GAA and a stratospheric .977 save pct.
Thomas was in goal for both Boston wins over Washington this season, and he allowed a single goal in each contest.
“The surgery or whatever, he’s always been a really good goalie,” declares Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, who has been facing Thomas-backstopped teams since 2002-03. “I wish he’d quit. What is he, 8-0 or 7-0 right now? He’s been tremendous.”
Thomas played collegiate hockey at U. of Vermont, but his early pro career consisted of seasons in the minors weaved with seasons in the Finnish pro league. Thomas got four games with the Bruins in 2002-03, winning three of them. But he didn’t return to the NHL – and didn’t get a firm foothold in the league – until after he played one final campaign in Finland in 2004-05, the lockout season.
He didn’t record his first NHL win until he was 28 years old, but Thomas now has 133 victories in the league, and counting.
“I love to see guys who have toiled in the minors and had to go over to Europe and come back and get the chance and prove that he belongs,” says Boudreau. “And he belongs. He’s beaten us twice – well, the Bruins have beaten us twice, but he was very instrumental – and when he is in that zone, he’s in a zone and it’s really difficult to beat him. He’s so competitive and you have to admire a guy like that.”
Thomas’ goaltending style is more like no style at all. He gets his body between the puck and the goal line, period.
“Just stopping the puck, that’s all it is,” says Boudreau. I don’t care about style, I just want you to stop the puck. Style is, I think, way overrated.”
Boston’s strong start is largely attributable to Thomas bouncing back strong, but the B’s have a solid defense and enough offensive weapons that they’re scoring goals consistently without top line pivot Marc Savard, who is sidelined with post-concussion symptoms.
“It’s a pretty good combination when you can score first and not allow another team to score at all,” says Boudreau of the B’s. “They’re playing as well – if not better – than every team in the NHL right now.
“They remind me of the team they had two years ago when they led the league, and they led the league in defense and led the league in offense. They’re feeling it and it doesn’t matter who goes into the lineup, nothing seems to change. [Steve] Montador goes out, [Adam] McQuaid comes in; they do the same thing. Claude’s got them playing as well as well as you can play.”
Going into Thursday night’s slate of NHL activity, the Bruins had the league’s 11th best power play unit at 19.4%, the circuit’s top penalty killing outfit at 91.4% and the NHL’s 28th ranked team in terms of face-off success at 46.2%.