March 3 vs. St. Louis Blues 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 washingtoncaps.com
St. Louis Blues (28-26-9)
Washington Capitals (34-20-10)
The St. Louis Blues hit town on Thursday to conclude a brief two-game homestand for the Capitals. Coming off a 2-1 overtime win over the New York Islanders on Tuesday night at Verizon Center, the Caps are now seeking to put together back-to-back wins on the Phone Booth sheet for the first time since Nov. 26-28. Washington has gone 6-7-6 in its last 19 home games.
A win over the Blues on Thursday would also give the Caps their first three-game winning streak in more than two months, since Dec. 26-Jan. 1.
In sweeping a home-and-home set with the Islanders, the Caps trailed after 40 minutes in both games. In Tuesday’s win, the Capitals waited until the 60th minute of regulation before they scored their first goal of the game. Prior to that, the Caps had squandered a fair number of prime scoring chances. Washington was also fortunate that its opponent did the same, despite several Caps turnovers that resulted in odd-man breaks for the Isles.
“We’ve won four of our last five, which is good,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich, who has supplied the team’s first goal in each of the last two games. “But we still have to be better. If we’re playing the Philadelphia Flyers or the Detroit Red Wings or somebody [else Tuesday] night, maybe the situation is a little different. We gave up too many 3-on-2s and 2-on1s to a young, inexperienced hockey team, but a good hockey team. Other teams I think would really put you away sometimes. We have to be better if we want to win more consistently.”
For whatever reason – and anemic power play production is just one – the Capitals are averaging less than two goals per home game over their last 19 contests at Verizon Center. Going into the Islanders game on Tuesday, the Caps had been outscored 12-1 in losing three straight games on home ice.
“It’s been a struggle scoring at home,” admits Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “Against the Rangers [in a shutout loss last Friday] we had 35 shots. Against [the Islanders] we had 40 shots, 38 without a goal. I’m sitting there on the bench going, ‘That’s 73 shots without a goal. Something’s got to give.’ Luckily, Jason made a great pass and we put it in.”
The “Jason” of whom Boudreau speaks is veteran center Jason Arnott, who set up Laich for the game-tying goal against the Isles with a great pass from behind the New York net. Along with veteran winger Marco Sturm and defenseman Dennis Wideman, Arnott was one of three Caps to make his debut in a Washington sweater in Tuesday’s game.
Tuesday’s win over the Isles marked the third time this month and the sixth this season that Washington won a game in which it trailed after 40 minutes of play. Only Dallas and the New York Rangers (seven each) have more wins when trailing after two periods this season.
“That’s one thing even the new guys were saying,” says Boudreau. “Even when we were down one [in the third period], they were surprised; on other teams they’d been on there would have been a real panic back there and there was a calmness. I think that’s the sixth game now we’ve come back, even though we’re not scoring. It proves that we have the confidence that we can do what we have to do.”
Each of the three new additions to the Washington lineup is a skilled offensive player, and Boudreau hopes their presence will help juice up an offense that has lacked luster for the better part of the last three months.
“I think that’s the plan,” says Boudreau. “When you’re writing things up you’d like that to be able to happen, that you can score but at the same time you’re all responsible defensively. If you do that, the sky’s the limit. The only other intangible is working harder than the other team.”
Although the Caps scored only two goals in the trio’s first game with Washington, there is hope that the injection of veteran presence into the lineup and the locker room will help Washington win consistently, something else it has not done much over the last three months.
“I think the new guys coming in are really going to help with that,” says Laich. “I think Jason Arnott is a great presence in the locker room. Dennis is a fun guy to be around. Marco, the same thing. You’re putting 24 or 25 hundred games into your locker room. That can only help settle the team down and guide us in the right direction.”
Playing with skilled but enigmatic winger Alexander Semin, Laich and Arnott displayed some chemistry right from the beginning of Tuesday’s game, and it finally paid off when Arnott and Laich combined to connect in the final minute of regulation.
“I think we play a similar game,” says Laich. “I have a lot of respect for the way he plays. He’s a big man who is tough to play against. He plays a two-way game, can control the puck, shoot the puck, go to the net. I think we’ll really work well together. And I think he’s excited to be here. [Tuesday] night he was smiling and joking around. There was a lot of interchange and talking; ‘I like this play, I like this play.’ We figured each other out. I think it’s a great opportunity for myself to play with Jason, hopefully he feels the same way.”
The Caps got some standings help on Wednesday when Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh both lost. The Caps come into Thursday’s game three points behind Tampa Bay for the top spot in the Southeast Division and three points in back of Pittsburgh for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
“[We’ve got] 78 points,” says Boudreau. “How many teams have more than that? Eight, seven, in the whole NHL? I think our goaltending has been very good. I’m looking at the positives: the penalty killing, the defensive play.
“You take that 6-0 [loss to the Rangers last Friday] out of the equation and we’re giving up nothing. That’s a real positive sign to be able to [take] into the playoffs. Hopefully by the end of this week we have a good week and we’re playing Tampa on [Monday] for something more than two points.”
The Caps beat the Blues in St. Louis by a 4-1 count on Dec. 1 to run their record to 18-6-2. The Caps dropped eight straight immediately thereafter and have been a 16-14-8 team since downing the Blues just over three months ago.
St. Louis is in 13th place in the Western Conference standings and fifth in the Central Division. The Blues are on the verge of missing out on the Stanley Cup playoffs for the fifth time in the last six seasons.
Off to one of the swiftest starts in the league – and the best 12-game start in franchise history – this season at 9-1-2, the Blues were plagued by injuries early in the campaign and they’ve gone 19-25-7 since. St. Louis is 10-2-3 in its 15 games against Eastern Conference opponents this season.
Thursday’s trip to the District is just the third for St. Louis in the six seasons since the NHL lockout. The Blues last win in Washington came on Jan. 28, 2003. St. Louis is starting a two-game road trip in D.C.; the Blues will travel to Long Island for a Saturday night date with the Islanders before returning home.
Each of the Blues’ last three games has ended in a shutout. St. Louis took a 5-0 win over Edmonton on Feb. 25 before suffering successive shutout losses to the Flames, 1-0 in Calgary on Feb. 27 and 6-0 in St. Louis on Tuesday. The Blues have dropped five of their last six games, surrendering 19 goals in the process.
Words From The Room: Injured right wing Eric Fehr (out since Jan. 14 with an upper body injury) on his progress toward a return to the lineup: “I’m feeling a lot better. I’m feeling a lot more confident on the ice. I feel like I can take some hits. Hopefully I am getting close. I’m thinking positively toward the next couple of games here. I don’t wasn’t to get too far ahead of myself and set a specific date, but I’m really hoping in the near future I’ll be back.”
Wideman on being traded in midseason this season vs. the first time it happened to him, four seasons ago when he went from St. Louis to Boston: “It’s a lot different this time. When I moved the first time at the deadline, I was in my second year. It seems like a long time ago. I was probably a little immature. I didn’t handle it as well. Coming here, I was excited and really looking forward to it. The guys here made the transition real easy.”