December 9 vs. Florida Panthers 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
Florida Panthers (12-14-0)
Washington Capitals (18-8-3)
Thursday night marks Washington’s 30th game of the 2010-11 regular season. It also marks its first game against Southeast Division rival Florida. The Caps and Panthers hook up at Verizon Center for their lone meeting in the first half of the season. They will get together five times in the season’s final 41 games.
Washington will be seeking to stop its second three-game losing streak in a matter of weeks. The Caps dropped three in a row (0-2-1) from Nov. 19-22 and they’re 0-2-1 in their last three and a pedestrian 4-4-2 in their last 10. The team’s current 10-game stretch of hockey is its worst – record-wise – since a 4-5-1 run from Feb. 20-March 10, 2009.
Bruce Boudreau has been behind the bench for a total of 254 games as Washington’s coach. During that period of time, the Caps have not lost more than four games in a row, and they’ve only lost four in a row twice. They’ve never gone four games without a point. The previous two four-game losing streaks were an 0-3-1 run from March 1-8, 2009 and an 0-2-2 stretch from Oct. 6-12, 2009.
“We don’t like it,” says Boudreau of his team’s current stretch. “And we know Florida’s coming in and they want to make it four [losses] in a row. And we beat them six times last year and they’re going to come in winning two in a row with revenge on their mind. But this is where we’ve got to stand strong in our building and make sure it doesn’t get into that snowball effect.”
Monday’s loss of defenseman Jeff Schultz (broken thumb) won’t make matters any easier, but last week’s acquisition of veteran defenseman Scott Hannan from Colorado gives the Caps better defensive depth with which to withstand the loss of Schultz.
In addition to being Mike Green’s blueline partner, Schultz is eighth in the league among defensemen in blocked shots and he ranks 17th in the circuit among blueliners in shorthanded ice time with an average of 3:30 per night.
Hannan skated with Green at the Capitals’ Wednesday practice, some eight days after the trade that brought him to the District. He has been around long enough to know that he simply needs to play his game as he takes on a new blueline partner.
“No matter who you’re playing with,” relates Hannan, “you don’t change your game. I’ve played for a while and I play the same way. Just move the puck and do what I can; try and be physical, get the puck out, break it out, get it in the forward’s hands and let them do the work. That’s been my game since I started. I’m not going to change that depending on which partner I play with. It will be good to play with Greenie, a guy who can skate like he can and move the puck.”
Boudreau mentioned right-handed puck movers Dan Boyle and Rob Blake as players Hannan would have played with previously during his days with the Sharks. But the San Jose days of Hannan and Boyle and Hannan and Blake never overlapped. And, when asked about previous partners after Wednesday’s practice, Hannan could not recall playing with a right-handed shot for any significant length of time.
“There aren’t too many right-handed shots I’ve played with,” says Hannan. “I’ve played with guys who can move the puck and skate, but I don’t think I’ve played with a guy of his caliber as far as the way he can skate and see the ice, his shot and how he reads the play. It’s going to be fun playing with him for sure.”
Early in his days with the Sharks, Hannan skated with Marcus Ragnarsson. Later, he formed a formidable shutdown tandem with Mike Rathje. Post-lockout, Hannan helped break in teenaged rookie Marc-Eduoard Vlasic. That was in Hannan’s last season with the Sharks, and it was a huge season in the team’s life cycle. San Jose had a pair of rookies in their defensive rotation that season in Vlasic and Matt Carle.
When two players begin a backline partnership, the key is the same as in any healthy, functional relationship between any two people on or off the ice.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, communication,” says Hannan. “You just try to talk about everything out there, mainly in talking on the ice. I think we’ll be able to read off each other well. A lot of it is just getting to know guys tendencies, and that just comes with communication.”
Green has been around long enough to know his new partner is right.
“It’s communication,” says Green. “I’m lucky that Scotty talks a lot and he directs traffic out there. It’s going to help me out a lot and it’s going to make us become more comfortable quickly.”
Hannan should also be able to help the Caps absorb some of the penalty killing burden that formerly fell on Schultz’s shoulders. The 31-year-old Hannan has averaged better than three minutes a night in shorthanded ice time for the last decade.
“It’s always something that’s been a challenge for me,” says Hannan. “I like it. To get out there and kill penalties is a big part of the team and a big part of the games.”
Boudreau wouldn’t mind seeing Green jump up into the attack a bit more frequently, and he thinks having Hannan alongside might be conducive to more offensive production from No. 52. During Blake’s offensive heyday in Los Angeles, he had steady stay-at-homer Mattias Norstrom alongside to help quell the occasional odd-man rush that resulted from Blake’s offensive zone forays.
“If we ask Mike to start moving up the ice a little bit,” begins Boudreau, “– he’s taken it from one extreme to another where he’s now totally defensive and not trying to get points. But he’s been doing a very good job at what he’s doing. But if we want him to find a better balance, then Scott’s the right guy to have there.”
The Panthers are in the midst of a stretch in which they play nine of 12 games on the road. Occupying the basement of the Southeast Division, the Cats are 6-9 on the road thus far this season.
Florida is 3-5 in their last eight games, and it needed either overtime or a shootout to nail down each of those victories. The Cats’ last regulation win was a 4-1 win over the Islanders in New York on Nov. 20.
The Panthers have allowed fewer than 30 shots on goal in five of their last eight games but have also surrendered 40 or more shots in four of their last 11. As always, Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun sees a lot of rubber, but he’s always capable to keeping the Cats close and stealing a win.
Florida’s power play has been a problem area in the early going of 2010-11. The Panthers have managed a total of just seven power play goals (7-for-89, 7.9%) in 26 games this season. They’ve surrendered three shorthanded goals for a meager plus-4 extra-man goal differential.
The Panthers have netted a power play goal in just two of their last 18 games, tallying twice with the extra man in both of those tilts.
The Cats are 4-2 against fellow Southeast Division opponents this season while Washington is 7-3 within the division. All three of the Caps’ Southeast setbacks have come at the hands of the Atlanta Thrashers.
Along with Montreal and Pittsburgh, Florida is one of three Eastern Conference clubs the Caps have yet to face this season. Washington has defeated each of the other 11 teams in its conference this season.
“We want to beat everybody that we play,” says Boudreau. “That’s what the message is today. We are not here just to wait until the playoffs because if you don’t play good, you’re not going to make the playoffs. I think we’re six points up on eighth place right now, something like that. It can all change in a week, so we’ve got to turn it around.”