December 4 vs. Atlanta Thrashers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Atlanta Thrashers (13-10-3)
Washington Capitals (18-7-2)
The Capitals return home to start a four-game homestand – the longest of the 2010-11 season – on Saturday night at Verizon Center. They’ll open up the four-game home run against a familiar foe, the Atlanta Thrashers.
Washington is fresh off a two-game road trip out west and will be playing for the third time in four nights. The Caps took down the Blues in St. Louis by a 4-1 count on Friday before losing a 2-1 close shave in Dallas on Thursday. What would have been a game-tying goal from John Carlson with 7.6 seconds remaining was waived off by referee Dan O’Rourke because he claimed Caps captain Alex Ovechkin was in the crease and he interfered with goaltender Andrew Raycroft’s ability to make the save.
The Caps’ four-game winning streak came to an end as a result, though the Capitals did hold the opposition to two or fewer goals for the fifth straight game. That’s the team’s longest run with two or fewer goals against this season. The last time Washington put together a longer streak of that kind was from Jan. 23-Feb. 2 when it went half a dozen games without allowing more than two goals in the midst of a franchise record 14-game winning streak.
“It’s been good, in St. Louis and in Dallas,” says Caps forward Matt Hendricks of the team’s recent defensive efforts. “Guys are buying into the team defensive schemes, guys are blocking shots, paying the price to get pucks out especially on the penalty kill, and goaltending has been very good for us.”
After Semyon Varlamov started and won four straight games for the Capitals, Michal Neuvirth started against Dallas, getting the net for the first time since Nov. 20. He stopped 19 of the 21 shots he faced against the Stars.
Saturday’s game marks Washington’s 28th and Atlanta’s 27th game of the season. It’s also the fifth time the two Southeast Division foes have tangled this season, and the third time they’ve met in the District.
The most recent meeting between the two teams found the Caps on the short end of a 5-0 Atlanta whitewashing some 15 days ago. Atlanta netminder Ondrej Pavelec authored that shutout, making 29 saves in the process. That victory started a six-game winning streak for the Thrashers.
Washington and Atlanta have split the previous four meetings this season, with each team winning twice in its own barn. The Thrashers pushed the Caps to overtime in an Oct. 23 loss at Verizon Center, so they’ve earned an extra point in the season’s series which will conclude on Jan. 26 in Atlanta in the final game before the NHL’s All-Star break.
Despite falling 3-2 in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Atlanta comes to town on a hot streak, in third place in the Southeast Division standings and nine points behind Washington. The Caps are feeling the need to avoid a second straight loss and to keep a divisional foe from gaining ground on Saturday.
“It’s very important,” says Hendricks, “especially being a divisional opponent like they are and playing really good hockey right now, getting great goaltending. Obviously [Atlanta defenseman Dustin] Byfuglien has been the talk of the town back at defense this year putting up big numbers. And this is our last time playing them at home in our building, so it’s going to be important. If we do see them in the playoffs, we want to let them know that they can’t beat us at home.”
Atlanta’s 3-2 loss to the Penguins ended a fine defensive run for the Thrashers in which they allowed two or fewer goals in seven straight games. Pavelec went 7-4-1 with a pair of shutouts, a 1.55 GAA and a .951 save pct. in the month of November.
“They’ve had a great three-week run,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “They really believe in themselves right now. It’s going to be a tough haul [Saturday].”
Byfuglien is – along with Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd and Brent Sopel – one of four players imported via the trade route from Stanley Cup champion Chicago last summer.
Returned to his natural defense position after skating on the wing during most of his recent time with the Blackhawks, Byfuglien has flourished. He currently leads all NHL blueliners with 10 goals and 27 points in just 26 games. Byfuglien has five goals and 11 points in his last seven games.
“When you’re 260 pounds and you’re 6-foot-4, it’s pretty hard to cover you,” concedes Boudreau. “We faced him in [AHL] Norfolk early in his career. [Former Caps assistant coach] Jay Leach has always said that it takes defensemen – some of them – four or five years to develop.
“I can’t say [Chicago] didn’t succeed because they won the Cup. And they have three great defensemen back there as it is, so they probably thought that playing him at the wing was the proper thing to do. He seems to have found a niche in Atlanta, and he is certainly on a roll at this stage. He is definitely going to be a priority to stop [Saturday].”
Atlanta has a new general manager in Rick Dudley and a new head coach in Craig Ramsay. They’ve also turned over half of the roster since opening night of the 2009-10 season.
Only a few Thrashers remain from the days of Bob Hartley as the Atlanta bench boss; it was Hartley who led the Thrashers to the lone playoff appearance in franchise history in 2007. One of those remaining players is winger Eric Boulton, who has played for Hartley, John Anderson and Ramsay since coming to the Thrashers as a free agent five summers ago.
On Thursday in Pittsburgh, Boulton skated in his 500th NHL game.
“I think all those coaches bring their own strengths,” says the veteran winger. “All three are great coaches. Rammer is doing a great job here getting everyone to buying into teamwork. Everyone is playing for each other right now; that’s huge. His system is about hard work and good sticks and keeping the other team in their zone. We’ve got some good goaltending right now and we’ve got great puck-moving defensemen that are helping us stay out of our end. We’ve surprised a lot of teams this year with how well we’re able to score goals, too.”
For many years, Atlanta relied – perhaps too heavily at times – on the sniping skills of Ilya Kovalchuk. Now, with the players acquired in the Feburary deal that sent Kovalchuk to New Jersey and the quartet of former Blackhawks, the Thrashers are getting consistent contributions from the entire roster.
“Definitely,” says Boulton, when asked if Atlanta has been remolded in the wake of Kolvachuk’s departure. “We’re relying on Byfuglien right now.
“In all seriousness, Kovy was a great player here. He did a lot of good things, and guys would look to him to bail us out or score those big goals toward the end of the game. We know that we’ve got a team effort here now. It has to be. Scoring is all around the room right now, and we’re all chipping in. That’s why we’re winning.”