January 26 vs. Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Capitals Report/Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 pm on washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (27-14-9)
Atlanta Thrashers (23-19-9)
Back on Oct. 8, the Capitals opened the 2010-11 season here in Atlanta with a flat effort in a 4-2 loss to the Thrashers. On Nov. 19, the Caps visited Atlanta again in Game No. 20 and came up on the losing end of a 5-0 score.
On Wednesday, the Caps close out their season series with the Thrashers seeking to salvage something from the three road games in the set. The Caps have never gone through a season’s series without at least a point to show for their efforts in Atlanta, and only once before (in 2000-01) have the Capitals failed to win at least once in Georgia’s capital city.
“It’s important,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau of Wednesday’s game. “We want to win every game. There are a lot of different off-ice things that could be happening with a victory over Atlanta. And it’s the same way with them. They’re 1-4-3 in their last eight, and they’ve got Carolina nipping at their heels. They’re coming off a 7-1 loss. It’s their last game before the break, they want to set it right, too. They’ve had three days to practice since Saturday.
“They’re as determined as we are. We want it for other reasons. We’ll be 10 points ahead of Atlanta if we win. We’ll be at the most two points back of Tampa if we win, all of these things that are really vital to us.”
When the two teams last met in the District on Dec. 4, Atlanta’s 3-1 win was the Thrashers’ seventh triumph in a span of eight games. For the Capitals, it was the second straight loss in a winless streak that would eventually stretch to eight.
The Caps are 2-3 against the Thrashers this season, and they are 9-5-2 against Southeast Division foes.
“They’ve played us real tough,” says Boudreau of the Thrashers. “They’ve dominated almost every game we’ve played so it’s going to be an interesting challenge for us.”
Despite winning only four of its last 10 games (4-2-4), Washington has gained at least a point in five straight (3-0-2) and 15 of its last 18 games.
Most recently, the Caps suffered a 2-1 shootout loss on home ice to the New York Rangers on Monday night. Rookie goalie Braden Holtby started his third consecutive game and surrendered just a single goal for the third consecutive contest. He has stopped 87 of the last 90 shots he has faced for a save pct. of .967.
Matt Hendricks scored Washington’s lone goal against New York, his seventh of the season and second in as many games.
The Caps’ team defense has now allowed just 34 goals in its last 18 games. Washington goaltenders have combined for a 1.76 GAA and a .941 save pct. in those games, but they’ve had help from their teammates in front.
“It’s been amazing these last three games,” says Holtby. “You can’t really give them enough credit for how much they’re blocking shots and battling in front. It’s the biggest difference I’ve noticed coming in to play with this team is that everyone’s sacrificing like I’ve never seen before. When you’re a goalie and you have that in front of you, it’s easy to play confident.”
Washington’s strong penalty killing corps also deserves credit for the team’s improved defense. The Caps’ shorthanded outfit has killed off 22 of its last 23 shorthanded situations and each of its last 18. The Capitals are second in the NHL this season with a penalty-killing success rate of 85.9% this season. The Caps have surrendered more than one power play goal in a game just three times in 50 contests this season.
On the other side of the special teams coin, Washington’s power play is severely struggling. The Caps have gone 26 straight games without getting multiple power play goals in a game, and they’re 9-for-85 (10.6%) with the extra man during that span, stretch that is equivalent to nearly a third of a season. That 10.6% rate is beneath what the team (Florida) with the league’s worst power play has put up for the season (11.4%).
“I’ve tried to do everything,” says Boudreau. “You don’t give up, you keep trying and you find a way. Hopefully, eventually it works and clicks and that’s what happens. In retrospect, it’s a pretty simple answer. You shoot the puck. You go to the net and you shoot the puck and that’s how you’re going to score.”
The last time the Caps endured a similar run of extra-man futility was from Jan.-March, 2002 when they went 28 games without getting more than one power play strike. Washington is 1-for-18 (5.6%) on the power play in its last eight games.
“I don’t think the focus has to be switched to the power play,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “The focus has been on the power play for two months. The PK has improved, and that’s great. But one of the strengths of this hockey team has always been the power play and the power play leads into goals five-on-five. It just makes everybody feel good when we’re scoring. The focus has always been on it. It’s something we take a great deal of pride in.
“People watch our power play and say it’s in disarray or whatever. You don’t know how hard we work or how much video we look at. The last two years, we’ve been on top on this thing and it’s not going in right now. The focus has always been on the power play and it’s something we can hopefully correct and make a strong point of our hockey team again.”
Wednesday’s game is the last contest before the All-Star break for both teams and also the final game in the month of January. The Capitals are 5-2-4 thus far this month. After winning 10 games in November (10-2-2), the Caps have won 10 games in two months season (10-8-7). Washington will come out of the break with 31 games remaining in the regular season.
Atlanta went 12-2-2 over a 16-game stretch from Nov. 19 through Dec. 20. Since then, the Thrashers have won only four of their last 16 games (4-8-4).
Penalty killing has been at the root of the Thrashers’ problems of late. Atlanta has allowed 19 power play goals in its last 16 games, killing off just 39 of 58 (67.2%) power play opportunities during that stretch.
Injuries have also started to pile up at the Thrashers’ door. Ironman blueliner Toby Enstrom had his franchise-record consecutive games streak snapped at 296 when he broke a finger on his right hand while blocking a shot in Saturday’s game against the Rangers.
Atlanta is also without forward Jim Slater (concussion) and goaltender Chris Mason (sprained right knee). Forwards Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane are both questionable for Wednesday’s game, both because of lower body ailments.
Notes: Caps defenseman Scott Hannan is slated to play in the 800th game of his NHL career on Wednesday night in Atlanta.