March 22 vs. Phialdelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center
Time: 7:30 pm TV: VERSUS Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (42-21-10)
Philadelphia Flyers (44-19-8)
When the Caps take on the Flyers in the City of Brotherly Love on Tuesday, they’ll do so without captain Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin, who played in each of the Capitals’ first 73 games this season, is taking some time off between now and the start of the playoffs to rest a nagging ailment. Tuesday’s tilt in Philadelphia starts off the second half of Washington’s six-game road swing.
The Philadelphia game is the Caps’ only contest in a six-day span, so the team believed the time was right to shut Ovechkin down for a few games so he can be fully healed before the playoffs. Washington’s recent surge – 10 wins in its last 11 games – has solidified the team’s position in the Eastern Conference standings. With three weeks remaining in the season, the Caps are all but assured of a playoff berth.
Although Ovechkin is generally good for a goal a game against the Flyers – twenty tallies in 22 tilts against Philadelphia lifetime – the Caps were able to muddle through his absence the only other time during his career that he missed a match against the Flyers. Washington won that game, an 8-1 trouncing of the Flyers in Philadelphia on Dec. 5, 2009.
Ovechkin has scored at least one goal in 16 of his 22 career games against the Flyers, scoring twice in four of those games. He added four goals in seven playoff contests against the Flyers in the spring of 2008, scoring twice in one of those games as well.
In 2007-08, only Semin missed any games and he missed 19. The following season, the foursome missed a combined total of 37 games. Last season’s total was 26 games, although two of Ovechkin’s missed games in 2009-10 were from suspension, not injury.
With nine games remaining in the 2010-11 campaign, the four “Young Guns” have already missed a combined total of 44 games. In addition to Ovechkin’s injury, Green is still sidelined with a concussion that has kept him out of 17 of the team’s last 19 games.
Almost all of those 44 man-games lost by the Young Guns have come over the Caps’ last 41 games, during which Washington has still managed an impressive 24-10-7 record.
“I think it says a lot for our depth and a lot for the ability of somebody else to step up,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “Like I’ve said numerous times, when someone’s out it gives somebody else an opportunity to get 20 minutes a game, probably more than they’ve played in a while. It’s up to them [in the] short term, to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Caps forward Brooks Laich played center – and played it very well – in Backstrom’s absence. Now, he’ll move back to the left side to help patch over Ovechkin’s absence.
“I’ve said it before, we play musical chairs around here quite a bit,” says Laich. “You’re used to guys going in and out, so it’s not that big of an adjustment. I move to wing now. Other guys are going to be back in the lineup soon, Somebody moves out, it makes an opportunity for somebody else. For the most part, we’ve done a good job with that.”
With or without Ovechkin, this game has some cache. It pits the top two teams in the Eastern Conference in their final regular season meeting. All three previous contests between the two clubs this season required more than 60 minutes to determine a winner. The Flyers have prevailed twice and Washington once. Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Caps trail the Flyers by just two points.
Well-rested after a 3-0 shutout win over the Devils in New Jersey on Friday, the Caps will go back to Michal Neuvirth in net on Tuesday. Neuvirth made 33 saves on Friday against the Devils to record his fourth shutout of the season and his third against an Atlantic Division foe.
Philadelphia is the only Atlantic Division team that Neuvirth has yet to defeat in his young NHL career. Neuvirth is 10-1-2 lifetime in 15 appearances (14 starts) during his career against Atlantic foes. He has fashioned a 1.73 GAA and a .942 save pct. in those 15 contests.
After sneaking into the playoffs by virtue of a shootout win in their final regular season game in 2009-10, the Flyers have maintained the top perch in the Eastern Conference standings for the better part of the 2010-11 campaign. Although Washington has closed the gap on Philadelphia in recent weeks, the Flyers still lead the conference by two points and they also hold two games in hand on the Capitals.
The Flyers’ total of 19 regulation losses is the second fewest in the NHL this season. One of only four teams in the league to average better than three goals per game this season, the Flyers lead the Eastern Conference in goals per game by a wide margin at 3.17 tallies per tilt. Boston is second at 2.97.
Led by Jeff Carter’s 33, the Flyers have five players with 20 or more goals this season and three other players who could join that quintet before the end of the regular season.
Philadelphia has surrendered an average of 2.62 goals per game, 11th best in the NHL this season.
The Flyers endured a four-game losing streak from Feb. 26-March 6, a skid that culminated with a 7-0 shellacking at the hands of the Rangers in New York. Since then, Philadelphia is 4-0-2 in its last half dozen contests.
With three weeks remaining in the regular season, there are still six or seven possibilities for the Capitals to get as a first-round playoff opponent. The Flyers aren’t one of those; it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Washington and Philadelphia would hook up in an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series. But the two former Patrick Division foes could certainly find themselves facing one another later on in the tournament.
Both will be seeking to get in the last regular season lick on the other in Tuesday’s tilt.
“You want to have any sort of edge that you can have going into the playoffs,” begins Laich, “whether it’s a mental edge or whether they think, ‘Oh, this is a tough team to play against,’ or ‘Their power play is tough to play against.’ You want them to fear you in any way that you can.
“It’s a big hockey game [Tuesday], obviously. I think the team that wins it gives themselves a real good chance at winning the conference in the regular season, finishing first. They’re going to have their best effort. I don’t think they’ve played their best hockey in the last month, but [Tuesday] we’re expecting their very best. So for us, it’s a big, big challenge.”