Back From Break, Caps Host Habs
Monday, 01.31.2011 / 9:23 PM
Mike Vogel - WashingtonCaps.com Senior WriterFebruary 1 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center
820AM, 1500AM and XM
Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 pm on washingtoncaps.com
Montreal Canadiens (27-18-5)
Washington Capitals (27-15-9)
After a five-day break for the NHL’s All-Star festivities, the Washington Capitals get back to the grind of the regular season when the Montreal Canadiens drop in for a Tuesday night tilt at Verizon Center.
The Capitals have 31 games remaining in the 2010-11 regular season, but they’ve already matched their regulation loss total for 2009-10. That was accomplished by virtue of last Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to the Thrashers in Atlanta. Despite allowing exactly one goal in each of thier last four games, the Caps picked up only five of a possible eight points (2-1-1) in the process.
“In Atlanta, we played I thought a really good hockey game,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “We wanted to win really bad, we just couldn’t score. Hopefully, that will change.”
The shutout setback to the Thrashers was the seventh suffered by the Capitals in their last 32 games. It’s the most shutout losses any Caps team has absorbed since the 1998-99 team was whitewashed 11 times. That team also suffered 510 man-games lost to injury, a single-season franchise record.
After getting off to a splendid 18-6-2 start in their first 26 games of the season, the Caps are just 9-9-7 since. That in and of itself is not startling for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations; most recent Cup champs have endured similarly mediocre stretches
at some point during the season.
What is somewhat alarming are some of the accompanying numbers. The top offensive team in the league last season, the Caps scored an average of 3.37 goals per game in their first 26 games of 2010-11. They’ve scored an average of exactly two goals per game in the 25 games since.
Washington’s power play was ranked first in the league last season and second in 2008-09. The Caps were clicking along with a 24.4% success rate on the power play in the season’s first 26 games, and they ranked second in the league at that point. Since then, the Caps have converted on just 9.4% of their power play chances.
“You guys ask me the same question all the time,” laments Boudreau. “It’s scoring on the power play, shooting pucks, going to the net, [getting] traffic in front. There’s no secrets. Just do it. Maybe you get lucky and score a goal and gain your confidence and it rolls from there.”
On the positive side of the equation, the Caps have had one of the league’s best penalty killing outfits throughout the season. They rank second in the NHL in that department at 86%, and they’ve been remarkably consistent throughout the campaign. Washington has allowed more than one power play goal in just three of its 51 games to date this season.
Defensively, the Caps have also improved. They allowed 68 goals in the season’s first 26 games for an average of 2.61 per game. They’ve allowed 57 since for an average of just 2.28 per contest.
In the standings, Washington has also taken a tumble. The Caps have nine fewer points (63 to 72) than they had at the same juncture last season. Instead of leading the Southeast Division by a wide margin, the Caps are in second place in the division race, four points behind front-running Tampa Bay.
“In the past couple of years,” says Caps defenseman Mike Green
, “we were in first place and we never had to worry about it. We were in the lead by even a few points. This year, us having to chase teams such as Tampa Bay is a different position for us. But I think it gives us a good challenge and makes us work towards our goal.”
Washington heads into the final 31 games of the season eight points behind first-place Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference standings and just seven points ahead of ninth-place Carolina.
“We’re four points out of our division lead,” says Boudreau. “The other teams have gotten better. That’s what salary cap and not drafting first, second, third or fourth does to you. It equals it out. We’re in a battle and we know it.
“We’ll see how it works out. We’re doing some things an awful lot better than we did last year, other things not as well. Now we’ve just got to equalize it out in the last 31 games and hope it works out. When you get to the playoffs, who knows what’s going to happen?”
Although the Caps have collected at least a point in 14 of their last 18 games, they’ve won only half (9-4-5) of those contests. The Lightning plays its next 10 games on home ice, where it has a 16-4-2 record. Washington plays 15 of its next 25 on the road where it is 11-10-3 thus far this season.
“It’s not the home stretch,” says Boudreau, when asked what he told his team prior to Monday’s practice, “but you can see it from here. Our schedule is pretty tough now in the last 31 games. It’s time to get excited.
“It’s like a golf game. We’ve played the front nine, so whether you’ve had a good front nine or a bad front nine it all starts fresh right now. So use it as that. If you’ve been struggling, go from here and start brand new. If you’ve been doing really good at something, then continue doing it.
“Maybe we’ll go six under on the back nine.”
The Caps finished strong last season, losing only four times in regulation in the season’s second half. But they bowed out in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the Habs.
“Personally, I would,” says Green when asked if he’d rather have more competition in the division and the conference than coast in easily as the Caps have done the last two seasons. “The other way hasn’t worked for us yet. I think with anything in life, you have to earn what you deserve. If we want to win this, we need to work hard and make sure we rise to the occasion instead of being overconfident and thinking that this is going to come easy.”
Montreal sits in the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference standings and the Habs are also only four points away from the lead in their division (the Northeast), trailing the Boston Bruins.
The Caps and Habs had their only previous meeting this season just over a month ago in Washington. Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov
made 25 stops in that Dec. 28 game to record his second shutout of the season in a 3-0 victory over the Canadiens.
Since the NHL’s holiday break, the Canadiens are 7-5-3. Montreal goaltender Carey Price has played in each of his team’s last seven games, starting six of them. He did not get an All-Star break; Price was in Raleigh participating in the All-Star festivities. He has played more minutes (2,665) this season than any other goaltender in the league.
The Habs are without two of their top defenders in Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges; both are out for the remainder of the regular season after undergoing right knee surgery. Montreal is also missing top line forward Mike Cammalleri, who is out with a shoulder injury.
Washington went into the break with a handful of injured players. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth
, defenseman Tyler Sloan
and winger Alexander Semin
all practiced with the team on Monday while defenseman Tom Poti
and right wing Eric Fehr
skated on their own before practice.
Neuvirth might be ready to go, and the Caps haven’t decided yet whether they’re recalling Sloan from AHL Hershey – where he had been assigned on a conditioning stint – or not.
Asked whether Semin might be able to play on Monday against Montreal, Boudreau stopped short.
“There’s a chance, I guess,” says the Caps coach. “I don’t know. I’d like to see him, but he will be the determining factor, letting us know if he is okay to play. And he hasn’t done that yet.”
Neither Poti nor Fehr schould be expected at practice this week.
“Poti and Fehr are definitely out this week,” says Boudreau. “They’re both tough reads. I’m guessing that Poti may practice with us next week and Eric probably in two weeks. That’s my guess as of now.”
Forward Brooks Laich
missed Monday’s practice because of a late-arriving flight.