February 25 vs. New York Rangers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on www.washingtoncaps.com
New York Rangers (32-26-4)
Washington Capitals (32-19-10)
Four nights after concluding their longest road trip of the season with a 1-0 win over the archrival Penguins in Pittsburgh, the Caps return home to close out the season’s series with another former Patrick Division foe, the New York Rangers.
Washington played five games in a span of eight nights on the trip, a stretch that included a pair of back-to-back games. Friday’s game against the Rangers starts another pair of back-to-backs for the Caps, who will depart immediately afterward for a Saturday night date with the Islanders on Long Island.
Although a 3-2 trip might not seem tremendously triumphant, the Caps left town on the heels of two straight losses on home ice and some dire predictions of what might happen if their western trip went south. Finishing up with wins over two tough conference foes with their first sweep of a back-to-back set this season and allowing just one goal in the final 120 minutes of play puts a little more luster on the journey than the 3-2 mark would suggest.
“Phoenix was in the middle of a great winning streak, they were playing as well as they can,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau in reflecting on the trip. “And San Jose was playing at the top of their game, too. We were in both of those games. Obviously, we would have liked to win both of them. I think we should have won the Phoenix game; I think we were the better team that night.
“That being said, when you go from east to west back to east and you still come back in those back-to-back games and beat Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the guys put a pretty valiant effort together. Now you have three days off and you’re hoping that you can regenerate some of that energy and get a little snowball going where it grows into something like three, four or five games.”
Now the Caps return home, where they’ve struggled lately. Washington opened the season with a 12-1-1 record in its first 14 home games, allowing only 35 goals for an average of 2.5 per contest. The Caps scored 57 goals in those 14 games for an average of 4.07 per game.
Up to that point – the end of November – Washington had fashioned a very impressive and dominant 30-3-4 record on home ice in calendar 2010.
Over their last 17 home games, the Capitals have allowed the exact same number of goals they surrendered in the season’s first 14 Verizon Center tilts: 35. That’s a very stingy average of 2.06 per game. A team that allows 2.06 goals per game should be winning far more than a third of its games. But the Caps haven’t won even a third of their last 17 home games.
Washington is now 5-6-6 in its last 17 games at Verizon Center. They’ve scored only 33 goals in those games for an average of 1.94 per contest.
“We’d like to start being way more consistent at home,” says Boudreau. “I think we’re 4-3-3 in our last 10 in this building where we only lost five [in regulation] last year, now we’ve lost seven. Our fans deserve for us to be a little bit better at home and hopefully it will [happen]. The Rangers are tough. They work as hard as anybody. But it’s a good starting point to go after them.”
In their first 14 home games of 2010-11, the Capitals were limited to two or fewer goals in a game twice. In the 17 home games since, they’ve been shutout three times, held to a single goal three times and kept to two goals four times.
“I don’t think we’ve been particularly impressive at home going back the last two months,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “Washington for the last couple of years has usually been a hard place for other teams to come play. We want to get back to that.
“You want to set some fear in the back of people’s minds that if they come to Washington, it’s going to be a long night for them and a very difficult night, and almost try and take the two points before the game has been played. That takes a lot of work, though. And teams come in looking to give us their best effort, but we’ve got to get that home ice dominance back for sure.”
The Capitals have won 17 of 31 games at home and 15 of 30 on the road this season. Washington won seven straight games on the Verizon Center sheet earlier this season but stunningly and remarkably has not won even two straight games on home ice since Nov. 26-28.
“We had that long road trip and we though we played some good hockey and had some big wins,” says Caps defenseman John Erskine. “Tomorrow night we’re playing the Rangers who are behind us and trying to catch us so it should be a pretty big game. We’ve got to start winning at home and plucking points to get home ice advantage in the playoffs.”
Whether they’re winning at home or on the road, there are only 21 games remaining in the regular season. The Capitals haven’t won as many as four straight games in nearly three months, and haven’t won as many as three straight since Dec. 26-Jan. 1. With back-to-back wins in hand and eight of the next nine games against teams beneath them in the standings, the time sure seems right for Washington to put together a run that could elevate it in the Eastern Conference and/or Southeast Division standings.
“It’s important points-wise,” admits Boudreau, “but it’s important mentally to start playing your best hockey of the year. There’s still a quarter of the season left. We forget, we think 21 [games], it’s getting down to nothing, but there’s a month and half left in the season. That’s a long time to be peaking right now, but we certainly see every team ramping it up and we’d like to be able to ramp it up with them.”
“We came out of the road trip with our head above water which is nice,” says Laich. “But other teams are still winning. Tampa Bay wins [Wednesday] night, so they get two points back ahead of us. For us, we can’t take any rest or take a break at all from the games. We have to continue winning and still have our eye on the division.
“Now is the time to start [playing your best hockey and putting together winning streaks and especially taking care of business at home. So we’ll look to do that [Friday].”
Heading into Thursday night’s slate of NHL activity, the Rangers are running third in the Atlantic Division and seventh in the Eastern Conference standings with 68 points, six fewer than the Capitals. Finishing up a brief, two-game road trip in the District, the Rangers started their journey with a 4-3 shootout win over the Hurricanes in Raleigh on Tuesday.
New York’s last visit to Verizon was just over a month ago. That trip resulted in a 2-1 shootout victory for the Blueshirts. Since then, the Rangers have gone 3-7-1 over an 11-game stretch, picking up two of the three wins in the shootout. New York is 20th in the league in average goals per game and 24th in power play prowess. The Rangers have scored more than three goals only once in their last 14 games.
Henrik Lundqvist has backstopped each of New York’s last six games. He blanked the Capitals 7-0 in New York on Dec. 12, but back-up Martin Biron was in goal when the Rangers defeated the Caps at Verizon in the 2-1 shootout win on Jan. 24. Bidding for a sixth straight season with 30 or more wins, Lundqvist brings a 24-20-4 mark to town.
As they were the last time they hit town, the Rangers are a bit banged up. Defenseman Marc Staal (knee injury) did not take the ice for the Blueshirts’ Thursday practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Sniper Marian Gaborik is out with a concussion while forwards Alexander Frolov and Chris Drury are both out after having undergone knee surgery. Winger Ruslan Fedotenko (shoulder injury and appendectomy) is nearing a return and could be back in action this weekend.