October 8 vs. Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, XM and the Capitals Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on www.washingtoncaps.com
Carolina Hurricanes (40-31-11in 2010-11, 0-1 in 2011-12)
Washington Capitals (48-23-11 in 2010-11)
Washington opens its highly anticipated 2011-12 regular season slate on Saturday night when the Carolina Hurricanes hit Verizon Center. Each of Washington’s first two games of the season will be played on home ice against a Southeast Division rival, beginning with Saturday’s contest against the Canes.
Michal Neuvirth gets the opening night call in goal for Washington, the second such assignment of his NHL career. Neuvirth was in net for the Caps a year ago tonight when they dropped a 4-2 road decision to the Thrashers in what turned out to be the final opening night in Atlanta.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin took leave of the team early in the week to return to his native Russia for the funeral of his uncle. Ovechkin returned to the District Friday and took a brief twirl on the ice sheet at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. He is expected to be in the lineup for Saturday’s opener against the Hurricanes.
Although the Capitals have amassed 336 points over the last three seasons – tops in the NHL – no more than 13 of the 20 players who suited up for the 2010-11 season opener in Atlanta a year ago will be dressed for Saturday’s opener against Carolina. Washington also opens the 2011-12 season without a single rookie on its roster.
The Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular season team in 2009-10, and returned largely the same lineup last season, when they finished the campaign atop the Eastern Conference standings. But after enduring disappointing playoff runs in each of the last two springs, general manager George McPhee re-tooled the Washington roster over the summer. As a result, several prominent new faces will assume key roles in 2011-12.
Three of the four forward lines have at least one new face and two of the three blueline pairs will have a player who was not with Washington at the outset of last season.
“It’s about time,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner of the onset of the season. “Everybody’s so fired up about it. Training camp is long and it’s a lot of hard work. So I think everybody is ready to be done with that and get the season going and test out the team that we have. I think everyone’s pretty fired up about that, too. We’ve got a lot of really good players, new faces and everybody just wants to see how we gel together.”
The Capitals have had four days of practice with their opening night roster (minus Ovechkin for the last three days), and are anxious to get the season underway.
“I think we’re excited about it,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble. “We’re excited about the season at hand, getting through it, playing well throughout the year and then seeing what happens in spring.”
The Caps were 3-3-1 during the pre-season, finishing with consecutive home ice wins over Buffalo and Chicago, two teams most believe will finish in the top four or so of their respective conferences. Washington never had its full, projected opening night lineup on the ice during the pre-season, and that makes the Caps all the more excited to get started in pursuit of the Stanley Cup in 2011-12.
“I think everybody had a long summer and everybody’s ready and excited for a new season,” says Hamrlik, whose own NHL debut came 19 years ago Friday as an 18-year-old playing in the first game in Tampa Bay Lightning history. “Especially for me coming to play with the Capitals, I’m very excited. It’s a challenge for me and to play for this team is an honor. I’m looking forward to it and it should be fun.”
Are there any nerves to note with opening night now upon us? Some.
“Any opening night and any team,” begins Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, “if you don’t have butterflies and you’re not nervous, then you’re not competitive. And we’re competitive.”
The Hurricanes will come to town for the second of back-to-back contests. Carolina hosted Tampa Bay at the RBC Center in Raleigh on Friday night before departing for the District immediately afterward. The Hurricanes fell to the Lightning, 5-1.
After 2011 Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner scored the game’s first goal in the first period for Carolina, Tampa Bay started a run of five unanswered goals early in the second period. The Canes were only down a goal with eight minutes left in the third, but two Lightning strikes within just 10 seconds put the Canes away.
“I thought we worked hard in the first two periods,” said Skinner after the game. “We just came off it for a little bit, and they capitalized on some scoring chances we gave them.”
Carolina was victimized for two power play goals in six Lightning power play opportunities.
“The five-on-five game, I liked,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. “And I liked the way we were going to the net. I liked the way we started the game.”
Carolina’s season came to an end on the final night of the season with a decisive 6-2 home ice loss to Tampa Bay last April 9. Had the Canes won that game, they – and not the New York Rangers – would have made the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Carolina opens the season with nine defensemen on its roster, including 19-year-old Justin Faulk and 18-year-old Ryan Murphy. Faulk was the Canes’ second-round (37th overall) choice in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft while Murphy was Carolina’s first-round (12th overall) choice in the 2011 Entry Draft.
Faulk made his NHL debut last night against Tampa Bay while Murphy was a healthy scratch. Blueliner Jamie McBain had 30 points (seven goals, 23 assists) for Carolina last season, but he was also scratched for the opener.
The Capitals went 5-0-1 against Carolina last season. The Canes’ lone win against washington came in a 3-2 shootout at Verizon Center last March 29. The Hurricanes have not registered a win in regulation against the Capitals since Dec. 28, 2009, the day Washington obtained forward Jason Chimera from the Blue Jackets in exchange for Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina. Since that game, the Caps are 6-0-3 against Carolina.