March 11 vs. Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap podcast on washingtoncaps.com at 2 p.m.
Carolina Hurricanes (31-26-10)
Washington Capitals (38-20-10)
The Caps’ three-game homestand continues with the middle match of the trio when the Carolina Hurricanes make their second visit of the season to Verizon Center on Friday night.
Washington will be seeking its seventh straight win when Carolina visits. The last time the Caps put together a longer streak was 13 months ago when the team was at the end of its franchise record 14-game winning streak. The Capitals had a six-game winning streak earlier in the season, from Oct. 30-Nov. 11.
While the Caps have played a lot of games against non-playoff teams lately, the schedule isn’t nearly as kind beginning with Carolina’s visit on Friday.
“We’re playing as well as we’ve played in recent months on a consistent basis,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “Is it good enough? Do we have to get better? I think so, if we want to continue this [streak]. After these next two home games, we’ve got six in a row on the road and we’re playing all playoff teams. I consider New Jersey a playoff team just because of the way they’ve played [lately].”
“It’ll be a real test, these next eight games for us.”
On Wednesday night, the Caps opened the homestand with a 5-0 thumping of the Edmonton Oilers. That game featured the first shutout of rookie goaltender Braden Holtby’s NHL career, Alex Ovechkin’s first power play goal on home ice this season, points from all three of Washington’s newest players (Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm and Dennis Wideman), and the team’s first five-goal outburst on home ice since a 5-1 win over New Jersey on Dec. 21.
Perhaps most significantly, the Caps’ slumbering power play awakened. The Capitals tallied with the extra man for the first time in seven games, ending their longest drought (in terms of consecutive games) without a power play goal in more than eight years. Washington actually scored twice with the extra man against the Oilers, notching its first game with multiple power play goals since Nov. 26.
Washington had gone 43 games without scoring more than one power play goal in any game, the longest drought of its 36-year franchise history. During those 43 games, the Caps were just 14-for-135 (10.4%) with the extra man.
Seeing their once prodigious power play output slow to a trickle over the last 43 games has forced the Caps to rely more on their defense than in previous seasons. But Boudreau hopes Wednesday’s 2-for-5 effort with the extra man is a sign that the outfit’s hibernation is over.
“It sure was the thought process when I went to sleep [Wednesday] night,” says Boudreau. “You’re hoping that it builds a little bit of confidence and then you can be more consistent with it. It looked good at times [Wednesday] night.”
Defense has been at the forefront of Washington’s current winning run. Before Wednesday’s win over the Oilers, the Caps had won each of their previous eight games by a single goal. More than half of Washington’s 68 games this season have been decided by one goal, and the Caps are 20-7-10 in those contests.
“I just think it’s a commitment by the guys,” says Boudreau. “It makes you feel good as a team when you see things like that. It’s the same as when you’re scoring. If you’re competitive, you want to be the best at everything you do. It’s nice to see, but it can slip the other way just as soon. That’s one thing about being good defensively, you have to be doing it all the time.”
The Capitals have moved up to fourth in the NHL (and second in the Eastern Conference) with an average of just 2.38 goals against per game in 2010-11. Washington has allowed a total of just eight goals during the life of its current six-game winning streak, and it has allowed two or fewer goals in six straight games and eight of its last nine.
Prior to Wednesday’s convincing win over Edmonton, the Caps had not held a lead of more than a single goal in any of their previous 13 games. When Eric Fehr scored to give the Caps a 2-0 lead midway through the second period against Edmonton, it ended a stretch in which Washington had gone 818 minutes and 15 seconds without leading by as many as two goals in any game.
“That’s why we didn’t know what to do [Wednesday] night,” jokes Boudreau, of finally having some goals to work with. “I didn’t know if we were going to relax because we hadn’t been in that situation in such a long time. Everything [usually] comes right down to the wire. Eight straight games is a long time for a lot of concentration for 60 minutes.
“You don’t worry about people getting ice time in the one-goal games; you put on the people that need to be put on. When you get a 5-0 lead, we sat Ovechkin, Arnott, [Alexander] Semin and [Mike] Knuble for the last five or six minutes. It’s a luxury, givig the other guys an opportunity to play that don’t play as much.”
The Hurricanes are in a frenzied push for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Carolina ranks eighth in the league with an average of 2.82 goals per game, but the Canes are 24th in goals against at 2.97 per contest.
Carolina hosted the NHL All-Star Game in late January, but the Canes have struggled since. They’ve managed consecutive wins only once in 17 games since the break, and are an uninspired 6-7-4 since then. The Hurricanes have played only twice since last Friday, losing both contests. They fell 5-2 to the Blackhawks last Friday and dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to Atlanta on Wednesday.
Heading into Thursday night’s NHL action, the Canes and Buffalo are both tied for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference with 72 points, but the Sabres have played one fewer game and have one more victory.
For the Canes, Friday’s game in Washington is the front end of a back-to-back set. Carolina returns to Raleigh for a Saturday night date with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Carolina has a total of 21 sets of back-to-backs this season, with six still to be played. A dozen of the Hurricanes’ final 15 games will be played as part of back-to-backs.
Thus far this season, the Canes are 9-2-4 in the front side and 6-8-1 in the back end of back-to-back games.
“We’ve had hard-fought games against Washington, pretty exciting games,” says Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. “There seems to be good energy in those games, expect that.”
The Capitals haven’t swept a season’s series from the Hartford/Carolina franchise since 1997-98 when Washington won all four games played between the two clubs. That season marks the only time the Caps have swept; Hartford swept the Capitals (3-0) in 1990-91. Washington has won each of the first four meetings between the two clubs this season, although the Nov. 28 victory at Verizon Center came in a shootout and resulted in the Canes picking up a point.
“They’ve had a real interesting year,” says Maurice of the Capitals. “They look like they’ve bought into playing a hard defensive game, that winning a game 2-1 is something they respect now. They’re playing well, they’re playing tough. Clearly they’ve got the offensive guns that we’ve always talked about, but I think their defensive game has really improved.”
Notes: Ovechkin is heating up; he has six goals and 16 points in his last 11 games. With 72 points, he is now fifth in the NHL’s scoring chase … Holtby’s first shutout was tied for the fifth fastest at the start of an NHL career by a Caps goalie. Maxime Ouellet pitched a shutout (the only one of his NHL career) in his third NHL game, Dave Parro in his fourth, Bob Mason in his sixth, and Jim Carey in his seventh. Holtby and Jim Bedard both did so in their 10th game in the league … Carolina recalled forward Drayson Bowman from its AHL Charlotte affiliate on Thursday.