December 28 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast on washingtoncaps.com at 2 p.m.
Montreal Canadiens (20-14-2)
Washington Capitals (21-12-5)
The Capitals’ final game of calendar 2010 brings the Montreal Canadiens to town for the first of their two Verizon visits this season. The game is the first meeting between the two teams this season. The Habs are the only Eastern Conference foe the Capitals have yet to face in 2010-11.
Montreal, of course, is also the team that ousted the Caps from the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs after Washington had forged a 3-1 series lead.
“Obviously, they made our summer miserable,” snarls Caps forward Brooks Laich. “So the sooner you can play them and try and put that behind you, get some wins against them, the better. That being said, it’s a new year and what happened last year is done and over with.
“But there should be no reason why we aren’t fired up and ready for this hockey game, based on what happened last year.
Since snapping an eight-game losing streak last Sunday in Ottawa the Capitals have started to swing momentum in the opposite direction. Washington has gained at least a point in four straight, going 3-0-1 during that stretch.
Most recently, the Caps are coming off a 3-2 road triumph over the Hurricanes in Carolina. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov, getting his first game action since Dec. 15, stopped 33 Carolina shots to earn his fifth win of the season and first since Dec. 1 in St. Louis.
While Washington is headed in the right direction, the Caps have some tough road ahead of them beginning with Tuesday's game with the Canadiens.
“I think you could feel it this morning at practice,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau after the team’s Monday practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “There was a lot more jump in the step. I don’t think we’re completely there yet; we’ve got two really tough opponents this week and then we play the Florida teams four times in a row.
“You add that and [the fact] that we’ve played more games than everybody, it’s one of those situations that if we let up and take it easy, we’re going to find ourselves in a battle for a playoff spot. And we don’t want that. We want to be secure. And for us to do that, we have to win.”
Aside from their recent eight-game slide, the Caps have done a good job of exactly that, winning.
Tuesday night’s tilt with the Canadiens is the Caps’ 81st regular season game of calendar 2010. Coming into that contest, the Capitals hold an impressive 51-17-12 record in the 80 previous 2010 games.
Washington’s slump hit eight with a loss to the Bruins in Boston on Dec. 18. After falling into a 3-0 first-period hole in that game, the Capitals have been very solid in their own end, allowing more than one goal in just one of the 14 periods of hockey they’ve played since.
In Sunday’s win at Carolina, the Caps took a 3-1 lead into the third period only to surrender a goal to the Hurricanes on the first shift of the final frame. The Caps then took two minor penalties in short succession, but they did not relinquish the lead.
Washington only allowed seven shots to the Canes in the game’s last period, and Boudreau believes a difficult loss to the Maple Leafs on home ice during the eight-game skid has actually helped his club.
The Caps squandered a 4-1 third-period lead in that game, giving up two goals in the final three minutes of regulation and suffering a 5-4 shootout setback.
“I think the Toronto game was a great lesson for us,” says Boudreau, “the abuse we took for losing that game. Nobody likes it. I think we’ve been more cognizant of how we’re playing with a lead and we’ve been really strong doing it.”
Leads were hard to come by during the life of the winless streak, but they’ve generally been effective at protecting them or at least winning most of the games in which they get them. The Caps are 10-0-4 when leading after 20 minutes and they’re 15-0-1 when leading after two periods of play. The lone blemish when leading after 40 minutes is that loss to the Leafs.
“It’s nice to play defensive hockey,” says Laich. “Which is something that, for the most part since I’ve been here, we’ve been criticized for not being able to play. I’ve always said we’re capable defensively, it’s just a matter of doing it consistently.
“You mentioned the one-goal games. Last year, we weren’t in a whole lot of those. A lot of the times it was 5-2 or 4-1 or 6-3 where you could kind of cruise through the games and you don’t really learn how to fight and how to struggle.
“I think we’ve gone through that now, I think we’ve learned that. And I think that’s why we’re starting to be more successful now in the one-goal games and in protecting leads and not getting worried even if we do give up a goal because we’re still playing well defensively and they’re probably not going to get another one.”
The Canadiens are in the midst of seven straight games on the road. The Habs are 1-3 on that run thus far, and they’re coming off a 4-1 Sunday night loss to the Islanders in New York.
Although they currently sit atop the Northeast Division standings, two points ahead of second-place Boston, the Canadiens are 2-6 in their last eight games.
Montreal traded away goaltender Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis over the summer. Halak was the netminder who limited the Caps to single tallies in each of the final three games of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between the two teams last April.
With Halak out of the picture, goalie Carey Price has grabbed the reins of the No. 1 job and has played 91% of the team’s minutes in goal this season. Price has 19 wins, tied for the league lead and six more than he had last season. The 23-year-old goaltender is just five wins shy of matching his single-season best of 24 wins set in his rookie season of 2007-08.
With Price between the pipes, the Canadiens are third in the NHL in goals against per game. The Habs have averaged 2.6 goals per game of their own, 19th in the NHL.