January 20 vs. New York Islanders at Nassau County Memorial Coliseum
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Capitals Report/Pre-Cap pre-game Podcast at 2 p.m.
Washington Capitals (25-14-8)
New York Islanders (14-23-7)
Washington travels to Long Island for the middle match of a three-game road trip Thursday night against the Islanders. The Caps come in on the heels of a 3-2 overtime setback at the hands of the Flyers in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Better than average goaltending has helped prop up the Capitals recently, enabling the club to keep a reasonably steady stream of standings points coming in despite a consistent dearth of offense. But Michal Neuvirth left Tuesday’s game in Philly after the first period with a lower body injury, and it was learned after that game that Semyon Varlamov – who played the final 41 minutes of Tuesday’s game in relief of Neuvirth – is also nursing a lower-body ailment.
Neuvirth returned to D.C. for further evaluation. Both goaltenders are listed as day-to-day.
Before departing Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon, the Caps practiced at Wells Fargo Center. Washington recalled netminder Braden Holtby from AHL Hershey and caps.com producer Brett Leonhardt manned the cage at the opposite end of the sheet at practice before the team moved on to Long Island.
“I think it would be a concern even if they were both healthy all the time,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau when asked if he worried about his young netminders’ durability. “I think every coach is always concerned about their goaltenders’ durability. It is what it is. You hope every time they lace the pads up that nothing bad happens. It’s a pretty precarious position where they’ve got to put their bodies in pretty weird spots sometimes. It doesn’t surprise me that goalies are getting hurt and pulling muscles and doing whatever else they do.”
Although they rallied to gain a point in coming back from a 2-0 third-period deficit against the Flyers, the Caps fell seven points behind the front-running Flyers in the Eastern Conference standings and a single point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the Southeast Division.
Slow starts have dogged the Capitals throughout calendar 2011. Washington has not entered the third period of any game with the lead since it took a 2-1 advantage into the final frame of the Winter Classic at Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day.
Washington has tallied a single first-period goal in its last eight games, allowing a total of eight first period goals over the same span. Recently, that early malaise has extended to the middle frame as well. The Caps are now without a goal in four straight games in the second period, and have combined for just one goal – Matt Hendricks’ first-period marker against Vancouver last Friday – in the first 40 minutes of their last four games.
Six of the seven goals the Capitals have scored in their last four games have come in the third period.
Thursday’s visit to the Island will be Washington’s first this season and first in nearly a year. The Caps last traveled to Long Island last Jan. 26 when they skated off with a 7-2 victory over the Islanders.
The Capitals’ offensive woes have been chronic for several weeks. Washington has not scored as many as four goals in a game in its last 11 contests, dating back to a 5-1 win over New Jersey on Dec. 21.
Washington’s power play unit has not scored more than once in a game since a 2-for-4 effort in a 6-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning back on Nov. 26. Since then, the Caps are 9-for-79 (11.4%) with the extra man and they’ve plummeted from second to 18th in the NHL’s power play rankings.
Boudreau and most of his players had never experienced anything like last month’s eight-game winless streak, and they’re in unfamiliar territory again as far as prolonged, team-wide scoring slumps go.
“Never,” says Boudreau. “But it’s always nice to experience new things, I guess. If you learn from things, then it’s great. If you don’t learn from things, then you’re going to create the same mistake twice.”
Even with their offensive struggles, the Caps have kept a reasonably steady stream of points coming in and they’ve remained within shouting distance of the top spot in the conference and the division.
“We’re starting late [in games], but we’re trying to fix that,” says Boudreau. “I want to accentuate how good that we are playing defensively. We’re not scoring more than three goals [a game], and yet if we win [Thursday] night, we’re one of only five NHL teams with 60 points or more. That’s some pretty good defensive work from a group that was chastised about being too offensive and not good enough defensively last year.
“I think over the next  games or whatever we have [left], we’ll find that balance between offense and defense and we’ll be ready.”
New York is residing in the lower regions of the Atlantic Division standings, as it has for the better part of the last two decades. The Fishermen will miss out on postseason play in 2010-11 for the fourth time in five seasons and the fifth time in six seasons since the lockout. The Islanders will have missed 12 of the last 16 Stanley Cup playoffs by season’s end. New York’s last playoff series win came in 1993.
The Islanders haven’t won a division title since 1987-88 when they finished first in the old Patrick Division. They’ve finished as high as second only once in that span; in 2001-02 when they totaled 96 points for second place in the Atlantic Division.
This season, the Isles are 28th in the league in goals scored per game and 29th in goals against per game. They’ve already dealt away veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson to Tampa Bay and defenseman James Wisniewski – who was tops on the team in ice time per game – to Montreal as they look ahead to next season.
The Fishermen do feature five skaters who’ve already reached the double-digit level in goals: John Tavares (18), Matt Moulson (14), Blake Comeau (13), P.A. Parenteau (11) and Michael Grabner (11). Tavares, the first player chosen overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and Comeau, a second-rounder in 2004, are the only players from that group that the Isles have drafted and developed.
New York won three straight and six of seven around the turn of the calendar, but it is 2-4-1 in its last seven games.
The Capitals are 5-0-1 in their last six visits to Long Island.