March 13 vs. Chicago Blackhawks at Verizon Center
Time: 12:30 pm TV: NBC Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM
Chicago Blackhawks (37-24-7)
Washington Capitals (39-20-10)
The Capitals close out their three-game homestand on Sunday afternoon seeking an eighth straight win when the Chicago Blackhawks pay a rare visit to Verizon Center. The defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks have been to the District just twice since the lockout, and their most recent trip in was the Capitals’ home opener for the 2008-09 season back on Oct. 11, 2008. The Caps prevailed in that one, 4-2.
Chicago and the Capitals met most recently almost a year ago to the day, also on a Sunday afternoon. That game in the Windy City on March 14, 2010 was noteworthy because Caps captain Alex Ovechkin was ejected (and later suspended for two games) for a first-period hit on Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell. After falling into a 3-0 hole to the Hawks in that game, the Capitals stormed back and won it on Nicklas Backstrom’s goal in overtime.
“I think there are two good teams going at it, that’s for sure,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “I think [the Hawks have] been here for three days; they’ll probably be pretty hungry. It’ll be national TV. If the game is anywhere near as good as it was last year – which I thought was the best game of the year, even if Ovi got kicked out, best comeback of the year for us, anyway – it was exciting. I hope that same kind of game gets played [Sunday] so people that are watching it will say, ‘This is hockey. What a sport. This is great.’”
Washington won’t have Backstrom in the lineup for Sunday’s game. He’ll be sitting out a third straight contest with a thumb injury. Defenseman Mike Green and Tom Poti and goaltender Semyon Varlamov will also be out with ailments.
Rookie Washington goaltender Braden Holtby will get his third straight start on Sunday when the Caps face the Hawks. Holtby is 7-2-2 this season with a 1.84 GAA and a .934 save pct. in 11 NHL games (nine starts) this season. In his last six outings, Holtby is 5-0-1 with a miscroscopic 0.69 GAA and a .977 save pct. In five home ice appearances (four starts) this season, Holtby is 4-0-1 with a 0.94 GAA and a .967 save pct.
Holtby defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 on Friday night for Washington’s seventh win in a row, making a single-game career high 40 saves in the process. Washington is the only team in NHL history with three goaltenders (Varlamov, Holtby and Michal Neuvirth) aged 22 or younger with each having seven or more wins.
The Caps have allowed just 2.36 goals per game this season, the fourth best figure in the league. That’s down from 2.77 goals against per contest in 2009-10, which was 16th in the circuit.
In addition to tremendous goaltending from their trio of young netminders, the Caps have gotten terrific penalty killing all season. With a kill rate of 85.8% on the season, the Caps rank third in the league. Washington has allowed two power play goals and seven even-strength strikes for a total of nine goals against during its current seven-game winning streak, and it has allowed just 1.97 goals per game over its last 37 contests.
“We want to be aggressive and limit their chances,” says Caps forward Boyd Gordon of his team’s penalty killing success. “If you can win that draw, get it down and just force them, don’t let them get set up, that’s the biggest thing. If they do get the puck in our end, we want to stay on them and not give them too much time. You give good players time, they will make you pay.
“It’s important for us, we haven’t been scoring as much this year and our power play hasn’t been as good as it was last year. For our kill to be good, it’s been important for us to do that to get the wins.”
The Caps went into the third period of Friday’s game with Carolina trailing by a goal, but for the fifth time in their last 12 games – and for the eighth time this season – Washington rebounded to win a game in which it trailed at the start of the final frame. Only Dallas (nine) has more wins this season when trailing after the first 40 minutes. Twenty-two of the teams in the league have fewer such wins all season than the Caps have in their last dozen games.
Last year’s Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years, but salary cap constraints forced Chicago to break off several pieces of that Cup-winning team and scatter them about the league. The Hawks smartly strewed those players to non-playoff clubs in the opposite conference, where they would theoretically do the least damage to Chicago’s bid for an encore Cup bid in 2011.
Chicago has had its ups and downs this season, but the Hawks are flying relatively high at the moment. The Blackhawks brought a season-high eight-game winning streak to Florida earlier in the week, but dropped a 3-2 decision to the Panthers on Tuesday and a 4-3 shootout to the Lightning on Wednesday.
Chicago has collected points in 15 of its last 17 games (10-2-3) but is still one of eight teams fighting for the final five playoff berths in the Western Conference standings. Those five teams are separated by a total of four points.
Last year’s Cup-winning Hawks team featured ex-Cap Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi in goal, but neither of those netminders has played a single game for the Hawks this season. Rookie goaltender Corey Crawford has carried the mail between the pipes for Chicago, posting a 26-13-4 record to go along with a 2.26 GAA and a .917 save pct.
Crawford leads all rookie goalies in the league in wins and is trying to join Steve Mason (33 wins with Columbus in 2008-09) and Henrik Lundqvist (30 wins with the Rangers in 2005-06) as the only freshmen netminders to win 30 or more games since Ron Hextall set the modern rookie record with 37 wins for the Flyers in 1986-87.
The off-season deals did not dissipate Chicago’s potent offense. The Hawks finished third in the league in 2009-10 with an average of 3.2 goals per game. This season, Chicago stands second in the league with 3.21 goals per contest.
With three days off in between games, the Blackhawks visited the White House on Friday afternoon and the Hawks’ entire coaching staff was in attendance at Verizon Center for the Capitals’ Friday night contest with the Carolina Hurricanes.