February 20 vs. Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena
Time: 12:30 pm TV: NBC Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM
Washington Capitals (30-19-10)
Buffalo Sabres (27-24-6)
Washington starts the back end of its five-game road trip with the first of back-to-back games to conclude the trip. The Caps will make their second and final visit to Buffalo for a Sunday afternoon skirmish with the Sabres.
The trip started with three games in four nights against Pacific Division opponents. All three games were decided by a single goal, but the Caps won only one of them, a 7-6 win over the Ducks in Anaheim on Wednesday. Sandwiched around that victory were 3-2 losses to the Coyotes in Phoenix on Monday and the Sharks in San Jose on Thursday.
“It’s a good feeling,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner of having a stretch of five straight games against Western foes in the rear view mirror. “Those teams are tough and they play us tough all the time. It’s nice to get that out of the way and just worry about the teams that we’re going to be racing with here at the end.
“All these games are going to be big games for us now, ones that can move us up or down in the standings. It really gives us that added motivation now to really bear down and play those full games and hopefully really start to gear up and get in good position for the playoffs.”
The Caps’ lengthy journey concludes with a second set of back-to-backs, Sunday in Buffalo and Monday at Pittsburgh. From here on out, Washington plays 18 of its final 23 games against Eastern Conference opponents and plays 22 of its last 23 in the Eastern time zone.
“The one great thing is it puts us in control,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “If we want to do well, it’s up to us to do well. They’re all four-point games rather than two-point games. It should be a highly emotionalized last two months of the season.
“You look at Buffalo, they’ve got two games in hand, they’re 10 points back. And we play them twice. It’s a very pivotal game for us. And the same thing with Pittsburgh. They’re six [points] ahead of us in the conference at this stage. But at the same time our eyes are on catching everybody. We have to put a run together. And this is the time you put the run together, so we’re looking forward to those games.”
It’s been a few months since the Caps have “put a run together,” and there’s no better time to do so than in the weeks leading up to the playoffs.
“I think you’ve got to keep doing what breeds success,” says Caps forward Matt Hendricks. “It’s a fine line. You go one way, you go the other, you tend to lose games. But when we’re riding on that line, we’re doing pretty well. If we can keep all the little things going for us and keep doing the things that make us successful, I think we can put a run together.”
Losing two of three to start the trip – and four of five overall – was not in Washington’s plan, but the Caps hold hope that their recent stretch of games may show evidence of the team’s long dormant offense showing some signs of awakening.
Last season, the Caps had seven players who finished the season with 20 or more goals. They traded one of them (Tomas Fleischmann) at the end of November and another (Eric Fehr) has been sidelined with an injury for more than a month.
One area of the Caps’ game that has vexed them of late has been their third period play. On the season, the Capitals have outscored opponents 59-43 in the game’s final frame and the third has been the Caps’ best overall period this season.
Washington went 22 straight games without allowing multiple goals in the third period of any of its games from Dec. 15 through Feb. 6. The Capitals allowed a total of just six third-period goals in those 22 contests. But the Capitals have now been nicked for at least one third-period goal in each of five straight games, the first time this season that has occurred. Washington has allowed two or more goals in the final frame in three of its last five games and has surrendered a total of nine third-period tallies in its last five games.
“You wish you could do things [right] for 80 straight games, but it’s cyclical,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “We were also undefeated in regulation going tied into the third period, and I think we’ve lost three of those games now recently, which stems into the third-period goals.
“It’s something that we’ve got to fix. It seems like one thing goes and another thing gets great. For example our first periods – which were very bad early on – now we’re very good. We don’t allow any goals or [too many] shots, and we’ve been successful. But the third periods have been slipping. We’ve got to find a way to go 60 minutes.”
Even with their recent slippage late in games, the Caps have allowed 43 third-period goals on the season. That’s the fewest the Capitals have allowed in any of the three periods this season and it’s tied for the third fewest allowed by any NHL team in the game’s final frame.
“A few hiccups there, obviously,” notes Hendricks of the Caps’ third periods recently. “We don’t want to be doing that. We think we’re a pretty strong third period team, and we have shown that a lot this season. Maybe we’re getting away from our discipline a little bit in those areas in the defensive zone and they’re sneaking them by us.”
After slogging their way through the first half of the season in the lower regions of the Eastern Conference standings, the resurgent Sabres have made their move and are hovering just outside the top eight in the conference standings.
Buffalo was 15-18-4 through the calendar 2010 portion of the 2010-11 season. The Sabres were in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, 10 points out of the final playoff sport when the calendar turned to 2011. Buffalo is 12-6-2 since, and they are ninth in the east and just four points behind eighth-place Carolina heading into Saturday night’s NHL activity.
The Sabres are in the midst of a six-game homestand, their longest of the season. As soon as the homestand ends, Buffalo departs on a seven-game road trip that stretches from March 1-12.
Buffalo’s current homestand is tied for the second-longest in team history and is the club’s longest in four years. The Sabres went 5-0-1 on their most recent six-game homestand in Feb. 2007, but they’ve dropped the first two games of their current homestand.
Notes: Boudreau didn’t know one way or the other of defenseman Mike Green would return to the lineup on Sunday vs. Buffalo. Hit in the right ear by a Brooks Orpik slapshot two weeks ago, Green has played in just one of five games since. “I haven’t talked to [head athletic trainer] Greg [Smith] about it, but he had full practice today. We’ll see how he feels and see whether it makes sense to put him in or not or to wait another day.”