April 2 vs. Buffalo Sabres 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
Buffalo Sabres (39-29-9)
Washington Capitals (45-22-11)
The Capitals conclude a three-game homestand on Saturday night and also finish up their season’ series with Buffalo when the Sabres visit Verizon Center. With four regular season games remaining on their 2010-11 slate, the Caps are still trying to solidify their position in the Eastern Conference standings and to sew up a fourth straight Southeast Division crown.
Washington can take significant steps in both directions if it can collect a pair of points in Saturday’s game with the Sabres.
Buffalo is a distinct possibility for the Capitals to draw as a first-round postseason opponent, too. If the season were to end today, the Caps would be meeting the Sabres in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series.
“There’s a really good chance,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner of the possibility the Caps would face the Sabres in the first round. “We want to go out there and try and send a message if we can, play as hard as we can and try and let them know that, ‘If we do get you guys, it’s going to be a tough one.’
“We did a lot of video today and we just want to hammer down the things [like] the defensive zone, and picking up checks and being responsible. If we play that kind of game, we’re going to be happy.”
In each of their last two games and in three of their last five, the Capitals have surrendered a game-tying goal in the third period. The Caps took a 3-2 lead into the third period of Thursday’s game with Columbus, but needed Jason Chimera’s overtime tally to win it 4-3
“We weren’t defensively strong [Thursday] night,” says Caps forward Matt Hendricks. “That was one of the hot topics that we talked about as a group today that we need to be better at, especially with a team like [Columbus]. They play with an awful lot of energy. They try to exploit us very quickly down in our defensive zone. They pressure hard, and we didn’t seem to get a good grasp on that.”
The Jackets have nothing left to play for at this stage of the season, and the last half dozen games of the Caps schedule features games such as that as well as high-stakes games like Saturday’s contest against Buffalo.
“I like playing the teams that are in it,” says Hendricks. “It’s easy for us to look at Columbus and know that they’re not in the playoff picture and they’re not a conference opponent. But we need to be professional and we need to be playing our best hockey at this time of year. So when we’re going up against Carolina and against Buffalo – teams that are in the mix – it’s going to be playoff hockey and we’re going to have to be ready for it.”
Washington has lost a key blueliner in each of the first two games of the homestand. Dennis Wideman left Tuesday’s game against Carolina midway through the second period with a lower body injury and he is listed as week-to-week.
John Erskine didn’t play after the early minutes of the second period in Thursday’s game with the Blue Jackets. Erskine is listed as day-to-day, but if he is unable to go against the Sabres on Saturday, the Caps will likely need to summon a defenseman from AHL Hershey, which is playing at Norfolk this weekend.
“Injuries are something every team battles through,” says Hendricks. “Obviously this isn’t the best time of year to be going through it, but we’ve battled all season with injuries and we’re going to figure out a way to get through it like we always have.”
Washington has taken two of its three previous meetings with the Sabres this season. Most recently, the Caps took a 2-1 Sunday matinee decision in Buffalo on Feb. 20.
Since mid-January, the Sabres have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams with a 20-9-4 mark.
“If there’s been a team playing better that’s got a better record than [the Sabres] since the All-Star break, I don’t know of it,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “We know how hard we had to play to beat them last time in Buffalo, and they’d be the first ones to tell you that they had a really bad game that game. We played our butts off and won, 2-1.”
Buffalo has also suffered its share of key injuries to key players. Top center Derek Roy (quadriceps surgery) has missed more than half the season, and recently the Sabres have been without blueliner Jordan Leopold (broken hand) and goaltender Ryan Miller (upper body).
Miller’s status for Saturday’s game in the District is doubtful, and the Sabres may give rookie goalkeeper Jhonas Enroth a second straight start for the first time since November. Enroth started on Wednesday against the New York Rangers, and he blanked the Blueshirts on just 23 shots for a 1-0 Sabres win.
Enroth has now won four straight starts at the NHL level, going 4-0 with a 1.96 GAA and a .933 save pct.
Against New York, Buffalo did a great job of consistently getting all five of its skaters back into the defensive zone and keeping the Rangers away from the middle of the ice.
“I know it’s been a while,” says Boudreau, “but ever since Derek Roy got hurt, they’ve really had to think even more defensively. They’re bringing all the players back [in the defensive zone], and it’s working. They’re playing really good.”
Currently situated in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings, the Sabres travel to Carolina on Sunday for a crucial contest with the Hurricanes. The Canes trail Buffalo by three points in the Eastern Conference standings.
“They’re in a desperate mode,” says Boudreau of the Sabres, “and they’re playing like we played three years ago when we had to win the last seven to get in and every game was a battle and that’s how they’re doing it. They play us and Carolina this weekend. They know that the test is this weekend. If they pass it, they’re going to make the playoffs. If they don’t, it’ll be right down to the wire.”