March 6 vs. Florida Panthers at Bank Atlantic Center Time: 5:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM
Washington Capitals (35-20-10)
Florida Panthers (26-31-7)
With a three-game winning streak in their pocket, the Capitals hit the road for a pair of back-to-back games in the state of Florida. First stop is Sunrise on Sunday, where the Caps face the Florida Panthers in a matinee match at Bank Atlantic Center.
Washington also totes a three-game road winning streak with it to the Sunshine State. Starting with a 3-2 win over the Senators in Ottawa on Dec. 19, the Capitals are now 10-4-2 in their last 16 road games. Seeking a fourth straight season with 20 or more road wins for the first time in franchise history, the Caps need four wins in their last 10 road games in order to achieve that goal.
The Caps just concluded a successful two-game homestand in which they won both contests, their first back-to-back wins on home ice since Nov. 26-28. The Capitals have won five of their last six games and each of their last six victories has come by a single goal. Washington is now 18-7-10 in one-goal games this season.
Although the Capitals are just 17-14-8 in their last 39 games after an 18-6-2 start, they go into Saturday night’s NHL action just nine points behind Vancouver for the top spot in the league, six points behind Philadelphia for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and one point in back of Tampa Bay for first place in the Southeast Division.
“We were treading water,” admits Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, “but the league is so good. There are eight teams with 80 points or more, and all eight teams are within nine points of being No. 1 in the league.
“The battle for up top is the same as the battle for the playoffs. There are an awful lot of good teams. You could see some switches this weekend again. Every night there are new things. Boston, who is on a big roll, too, they could overtake Philly by the end of the weekend. It’s an exciting time to be a hockey player.”
With just over a month remaining in the regular season, there are 22 or 23 NHL teams still in the playoff picture. Now that the wins are beginning to outnumber the losses again, the Caps are looking to improve their lot in the standings.
“When you put wins together, you creep up on teams,” says left wing Jason Chimera. “You jump up in the standings when you string four or five wins together, six wins together. It’s a huge weekend because we’re only a point behind Tampa now for the division lead, which is huge. It’s a huge weekend for us. With the dads coming, we realize what kind of business we’ve got going on and what’s at stake. Guys are pretty serious in here about winning, so that’s a good thing. The additions have been nice to our team.”
The “dads” Chimera refers to are the fathers and brothers of Caps players who accompany the club on its annual “Mentors’ Trip,” which is taking place this weekend. This weekend marks the fourth annual Mentors’ Trip, and the mentors have seen the Caps post a 5-1 record over the previous three seasons. The Caps’ players are hoping their lucky charms will help as they head out on an important weekend excursion.
“The guys were talking and [saying] ‘They’re our good luck charm,’” says Caps defenseman John Erskine. “It’s a perfect time to bring them on this trip and hopefully get four points.”
The Caps came together for a team dinner with their three new players – forwards Marco Sturm and Jason Arnott and defenseman Dennis Wideman – and the dads on Friday night here in Ft. Lauderdale. Sturm, Wideman and Arnott are making their first road trip as members of the Capitals.
Since obtaining the three new veteran players in the days and hours ahead of the NHL’s Feb. 28 trade deadline, the Caps are 2-0 and each of the three players has played well.
The Capitals have come from behind in each of their last three victories. The Caps trailed going into the third period of wins over the Islanders on Feb. 26 and March 1, and they trailed twice in Thursday’s 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues.
Despite not scoring a first-period goal in six straight games – their longest streak this season – the Caps have won five of those six games. Washington’s total of 38 first-period goals is the fewest in the league this season. The Caps led the NHL with 92 first-period tallies in 2009-10.
Florida is headed for a 10th straight season with no Stanley Cup playoff hockey. The Panthers haven’t qualified for the post-season since 1999-00 and they haven’t won a playoff series since 1995-96, when they advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final in just the third season of their existence.
Last season, the Cats finished with 77 points and wound up in last place in the Southeast Division for the first time since the division was created in 1998-99. Once again this season the Panthers are pulling up the rear in the Southeast. They’re currently on pace for 76 points this season, but that pace has the potential to slow after the trade deadline. The last time Florida finished with fewer than 70 points was a 60-point finish in 2001-02.
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon was the chief architect of the 2009-10 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks team. Tallon drafted and/or dealt for most of the key pieces to the Hawks’ Cup-winning club during his four-season tenure as the team’s general manager. Hired last summer to turn around the Panthers’ on-ice fortunes, Tallon was one of the league’s busiest general managers in the days and hours leading up to the NHL’s trade deadline this year.
Tallon made a total of eight trades in the month of February, acquiring 11 new players and four draft choices, including three new third-round picks.
Tallon traded away half of his defense, shipping Wideman to Washington, Bryan McCabe to the New York Rangers and Bryan Allen to the Carolina Hurricanes.
In the wake of those blueline departures, the Panthers are playing with one of the league’s greenest blueline corps. The six rearguards the Cats dressed for their Thursday night home game (a 4-0 loss) with the Montreal Canadiens has a total of 763 games worth of NHL experience. Mike Weaver leads that group with 403 games played, and sophomore Dmitry Kulikov (122 games) is the only other one of the six with more than 100 games played in the league.
The Panthers visit Atlanta on Saturday night.
Notes: Goaltender Semyon Varlamov did not accompany the team on its two-game trip. Along with Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby is the second Caps' goalie on the trip. Holtby could get into a game later this week. “He’s not coming on the trip," says Boudreau of Varlamov. "He’ll be out about 7-10 days and we figure we’ll get him back. Braden can play and he might play one game this week.”