January 8 vs. Florida Panthers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Pre-Game Podcast on washingtoncaps.com at 2 p.m.
Florida Panthers (18-19-2)
Washington Capitals (23-12-6)
The Caps kick off the second half of their 2010-11 regular season slate on Saturday night when the Florida Panthers come to town. The Panthers are the only Eastern Conference team Washington has not yet defeated this season.
Washington is in the midst of a 5-0-2 run, a stretch that immediately followed an eight-game winless streak (0-6-2). With a victory over the Panthers on Saturday, the Caps would erase the damage of that streak and be a dozen games over the break-even point, matching their high-water mark of the campaign.
Although several of its stars are mired in simultaneous offensive slumps, Washington has continued to win games. The Caps have done so largely on the strength of their defense, their penalty kill and their even-strength play. The Capitals have allowed just 14 goals in the last nine games, and have outscored foes 16-8 in their last seven games.
“I said at the start of the year we could be a better hockey team if we scored 40 less goals but give up 40 less goals,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “For us to make improvements to win what we want to win, we have to be better defensively. Last year was a runaway. Everything went into the net for us, power play and five-on-five. It was a fantastic year offensively for us. And that’s not going to happen every year, but we’re still capable of scoring goals.
“I think now being in one-goal games, being in tight games, being tightly checked like we are right now, I think it’s going to benefit us come April, May and June. Maybe we sacrifice a little bit of the personal statistics, but we’re going to have team success.”
The Caps won 14 of their first 19 games this season, and have won just nine of 22 since. In their first 20 games of 2010-11, the Caps outscored foes by a combined 69-54. They were 15-for-69 (21.7%) on the power play and 67-for-80 (83.8%) on the penalty kill.
In their last 21 games, the Capitals have been outscored 51-50. They’re 13-for-82 (15.9%) with the extra man and are 72-for-83 (86.7%) while shorthanded.
Washington is currently in the midst of a 17-game run in which it has not had any “crooked number” games (games with more than one power play goal) with the extra man, its longest streak since it closed the 2006-07 campaign with 18 straight games without multiple power play tallies. The Caps are 7-for-64 (10.9%) on the power play in their last 17 games.
On the other side of that coin, Washington has put together a run of 28 straight games in which it has not allowed more than one power play goal in a game this season. The Caps have allowed more than one power play goal only twice in 41 games this season, both times against the Boston Bruins. In their last 28 games, the Capitals are 92-for-108 (85.2%) while shorthanded.
Washington’s current run of 28 straight games without surrendering multiple power play goals is the team’s longest since the 1997-98 season when it put together a run of 36 straight games without allowing more than one power play goal from Dec. 13, 1997 through March 20, 1998. The Caps killed off 145 of 156 shorthanded situations during that run for a stellar kill rate of 92.9%.
Saturday’s game kicks off a pair of consecutive contests against the Cats; Washington makes its first visit of the season to South Florida on Tuesday night. The Southeast Division has been tighter and more competitive than usual this season. It is the only NHL division that has three 50-point teams at the season’s midpoint and there are just 15 points separating the five Southeast clubs.
“I don’t know if it will help us,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau of the strength of the Southeast. “It makes me stay up longer at nights these days because the Southeast doesn’t lose unless they’re playing each other. Atlanta’s got 50 points and we’ve got 52 and Tampa’s got 53. Carolina is right there once they get their games in hand and if Florida wins their games in hand then it’s going to be a race right to the wire.”
Laich thinks the tougher divisional competition is toughening up the Caps.
“We’ve learned something this year maybe we didn’t learn last year,” says Laich. “We’ve learned how to struggle. We’re a little more pressure-treated now. We’ve learned how to fight because we went through a tough stretch where things weren’t going our way. Tampa has improved and Atlanta is one of the most underrated teams in the conference.
“Strength in the division will help, but we still believe in what we have and it’s about what we do in here and not what our opponents do.”
Florida whitewashed the Capitals 3-0 at Verizon Center on Dec. 9 behind the 36-save performance of goaltender Tomas Vokoun. That’s been the lone meeting of the season between the two clubs; they’ll hook up five times the rest of the way including twice this week and twice in the season’s final week.
The Panthers hosted Carolina on Friday night – falling 5-3 after taking an early 2-0 lead – and Saturday’s game in the District is the third contest in four nights for them. Florida is 5-3-2 in its last 10 games.
Florida ranks in the league’s top 10 in goals against (ninth) and penalty killing (ninth), but the Cats are 17th in goals scored and dead last with a power play success rate of just 9.3%.
Having missed the postseason for nine straight seasons, the Panthers are once again on the outside looking in on the Stanley Cup playoff picture. They headed into Friday night’s game in fifth place in the Southeast Division and 11th in the Eastern Conference standings.
Florida trails eighth-place Montreal by nine points and is 15 points off the pace being set by front-running Tampa Bay in the Southeast.
“We’ve got two games against them here in the next week,” says Laich of the Panthers. “We can hopefully put them behind us. If we get two more wins and four more points, now it’s a real uphill battle for them.
“You always want to put it in the mindset of other teams that they can’t beat you, especially early on in the year and hope that it makes it easier for you in the second half. Also, you want to have success especially in other teams’ buildings so that when playoffs come around you know you’ve been there and you’ve won before. And on the flipside of that, you want to make Washington a miserable place for them to come.”