January 11 vs. Florida Panthers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:30 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 (18-20-2)
Washington Capitals (24-12-6)
After playing just two games in a span of nine days immediately after the Winter Classic, the Washington Capitals take to the road for a pair of games in Florida against Southeast Division foes. First up is a Tuesday night visit to Sunrise where the Caps will play the second of consecutive contests against the Florida Panthers.
Quietly, the Capitals have pieced together a three-game road winning streak, their longest of the season. The Caps are 9-8-1 on the road overall in 2010-11, but they’ll need to start adjusting to life away from Verizon Center. Washington plays five of its next seven, seven of its next 11 and 12 of its next 19 games on the road.
“Our road record 15 games into the year was something like 7-7-1,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “It was something we had to address. If you’re going to be an elite team, you have to consistently win on the road, win in tough buildings and then take care of things on your home ice.
“Putting a nice little stretch together on the road [would be good], especially now when we’re playing some divisional opponents, going into their building and trying to take their points. Maybe put it in the back of their minds that, ‘We can’t beat these guys in Washington or in our own building,’ and try and put some fear in people’s minds.”
In the middle of last season, the Caps dropped consecutive road games in San Jose and Los Angeles at the turn of the calendar. Thereafter, the Capitals were nearly unbeatable on the road. They went 12-2-4 over their final 18 games away from D.C., outscoring foes 83-53 in the process.
The team’s first 18 road games of this season have played out much differently. The Caps have scored about half as many (43) goals in those games as they did in the final 18 road games of 2009-10. And they’ve allowed virtually the same number (50) as in their last 18 road games of ’09-10.
Excluding empty-net goals, the Caps have scored more than three goals in road games twice all season, doing so in consecutive road visits to Calgary and New York on Oct. 30 and Nov. 9, respectively.
Since absorbing a 7-0 drubbing at the hands of the Rangers in a Dec. 12 visit to Manhattan, the Caps have tightened up defensively and have allowed just 16 goals in their last 10 games. The team’s current 6-0-2 run has erased an 0-6-2 tailspin that immediately preceded it, and the Caps come to Florida at their high-water mark of the season, record-wise.
“We’re 6-0-2 [in our last eight], so I think it’s gone [well],” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “Touch wood, I don’t think we’ve allowed more than two goals in any one of those games. We’re still not scoring goals at the rate that people are accustomed to, but at the same time we’re having success and we’re winning, which is the most important thing.”
Washington’s attention to defensive detail may be just what it needs as it spends most of the second half of the season on the road. The way the Caps have been playing of late is the way lots of coaches like their teams to play on the road.
“The road games are not just these two,” says Boudreau. “We have three next week and two weeks after that we’ve got a five-gamer. It’s going to put a real test to the mettle of the guys and the commitment to how we’re playing.”
“Road games usually aren’t ones where we score five goals or six goals and get the fans wings,” notes Washington blueliner Karl Alzner. “They’re the games where you have to grind it out and try and win a game 2-1 or 3-2, which is what we’ve been doing. We’re turning into a team that can do damage on the road. We’re not going to do anything special. We might bore a few teams out there but that’s fine with us. We just want those points.”
The Caps are 6-1 in their last seven visits to Florida’s BankAtlantic Center and they’re 8-1 in their last nine games at the St. Pete Times Forum.
“I think we’re relying on positional play more than goal scoring right now,” says Caps forward Matt Hendricks. “I think that’s important. It’s a good way to play hockey. We’re helping our goaltenders out a lot more right now. We’re playing as a team, as a unit. We’re getting some success. Obviously we’d like to see some more goals in the back of the net but those things are coming.”
More than halfway through the 2010-11 regular season, the Caps are making the first of their three annual visits to Florida. The Panthers have played twice in the District and Tampa Bay has already made all three of its seasonal trips to D.C.
Washington enters Tuesday’s game one point behind Tampa Bay for the lead in the Southeast Division. Florida is bringing up the rear in the Southeast and the Panthers are 11th in the Eastern Conference. The Cats have dropped their last three games and are reaching a desperate point in their bid for their first playoff berth in a decade.
“It’s not a runaway, that’s for sure,” says Boudreau of the Southeast Division standings. “The games that we’re playing, every one means something. It’s not like Florida is 40 points behind or your next nearest competitor is 20 points back. I don’t know if it’s any easier to motivate, but there should be a lot of self-motivation rather than relying on me to motivate them.”
Florida scored the game’s first goal when the Caps and Cats met on Saturday at Verizon Center. The Caps scored three unanswered to forge a 3-2 win over the Panthers. Florida did not allow a goal in its first four periods of hockey against the Capitals this season.
Florida has not earned a Stanley Cup playoff berth since 2000 and it has not won a postseason series since 1996 when it advanced to the Cup final against the eventual champion Colorado Avalanche. The Cats are now 11 points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Panthers are 8-8-2 at home this season, and only two clubs in the league have played fewer home games to date. Florida will be looking to take advantage of a home-heavy schedule; the Cats need to get on a winning run if they are going to make a second-half charge toward the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
“I look forward to it, going to Florida,” says Hendricks. “It will be a little warmer down there. It’ll be nice. Looking ahead to the game, I thought we played a pretty good third period the other night. We got the two points, which is the most important thing. I think we really need to really establish our game in the first five or 10 minutes [Tuesday] night.”
Notes: Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov has started a career-high five straight games, going 4-0-1 with a 1.23 GAA and a 1.19 GAA and a .962 save pct. in that stretch. With back-to-back games on this trip, expect to see Michal Neuvirth get the start on Tuesday against the Panthers with Varlamov returning to the net on Wednesday against the Lightning. The start would be Neuvirth’s first since Dec. 23 against the Penguins … Winger Alexander Semin, who left Saturday’s game late in the second period with a lower body injury, did not accompany the team to Florida. The Caps have recalled winger Brian Willsie from AHL Hershey.