December 17 vs. Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center Time: 9:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 2 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (16-13-1)
Colorado Avalanche (14-17-1)
The Caps close out a two-game western road trip with a Saturday night visit to Denver, where they will take on the Colorado Avalanche. Washington eked out a 1-0 win over Winnipeg on Thursday night in Manitoba to start off the journey on the right foot.
Thursday’s win over the Jets was Washington’s second in succession on the road, and it followed a five-game road losing streak. The Caps are now 6-8 on the road this season.
Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth made 26 saves to record his first shutout of the season and the fifth of his NHL career. Four of Neuvirth’s five career whitewashes have come on the road and two of them have been by a 1-0 final score.
Neuvirth’s netminding and Alex Ovechkin’s goal in the game’s 59th minute were enough to give Washington a win over division rival Winnipeg. Neuvirth made 14 saves in the first period, some of them from in tight, to give Washington its best goaltending performance in a while.
“[The Jets] came out flying and Neuvy made some big stops and kept us in it,” says Caps defenseman John Erskine. “We just stuck to the game plan and played our defensive game and the offensive chances came. We beared down and Ovi got that big shot and the end.”
Heading into Friday night’s NHL action, the Capitals are second in the Southeast Division and tied for seventh in the Eastern Conference standings. The Caps trail first-place Florida by five points in the Southeast.
“I think that was a huge game,” says Erskine of the win over the Jets. “That’s a team that’s in our division and they were ahead of us by one point. Just to play a good defensive hockey game like that, and with like a minute left [Ovi] got that goal. I think it was a huge booster for our team.”
Washington has now won four of its last six games overall.
“I think that’s probably the best road game we’ve played all year,” says Caps defenseman Dennis Wideman of the trip opener in Winnipeg. “I think we took care of the puck pretty well. The first period, obviously we weren’t as strong as we’d like to be. But Neuvy came up and made some big saves. As the game went on, I think we started limiting their shots quite a bit. We had some good breakouts and then we did a good job in the offensive zone.”
It has been almost two years to the day since the Caps played in Denver; that visit came on Dec. 15, 2009 and resulted in a 6-1 Washington win. Nicklas Backstrom, Matt Bradley, Chris Clark, Tomas Fleischmann and Kyle Wilson (in his NHL debut) each had two points as the Capitals rolled up a 4-0 lead by the middle of the second period of that game. Jose Theodore was the winner in goal for Washington.
“It’s obviously going to be tough going into Colorado,” says Wideman. “It’s a tough place to play. I know they’ve got a lot of skill there; [Matt] Duchene is probably one of the most skilled guys in the league. With the air up in the mountains, that makes things a little tougher.”
Caps coach Dale Hunter started his 19-season NHL career with the Quebec Nordiques in 1980. The Nordiques moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995-96, and Washington traded Hunter to the Avs on March 23, 1999. The longtime Caps’ captain finished out his 1,407-game NHL playing career with the Avalanche that spring.
The most recent trade between the Capitals and the Avs occurred last July 1 when Washington sent goaltender Semyon Varlamov to Colorado in exchange for the Avs’ first-round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and a second-round pick in either 2012 or 2013.
Varlamov has been Colorado’s No. 1 netminder this season, posting a 10-13-1 mark with a shutout, a 3.14 GAA and an .896 save pct.
The more the Avalanche struggles in the standings – Colorado is currently 13th in the Western Conference standings and 25th overall in the NHL – the higher the draft pick Washington will receive in the 2012 draft.
Colorado had a top-five Entry Draft choice last summer when it used the second overall pick to land forward Gabriel Landeskog. Landeskog is a 19-year-old Swedish winger who shares a birthday (nov. 23) with Washington center Nicklas Backstrom.
Landeskog has 13 points (five goals, eight assists) this season to rank eighth among all rookies in scoring in the NHL. His plus-4 is the best mark on the Avalanche. Landeskog has fired 96 shots on net in 32 games to lead all NHL freshmen in that category.
In its most recent game, Colorado suffered a 5-4 road setback to the Sharks in San Jose. The Avs took a 4-2 lead into the third period of that game but could not close the deal.
The Avalanche is 8-9 on home ice, but it has won each of its last four games at Pepsi Center. Saturday’s game begins a four-game homestand for the Avalanche; Phialdelphia, St. Louis and Tampa Bay will follow the Capitals into Denver between now and the NHL’s two-day holiday break on Dec. 24-25.
Colorado is 6-1 against Eastern Conference opponents thus far this season.
The Avs boast the league’s second-best power play with a success rate of 22.1% on the season. Colorado has scored 14 of its 23 power play goals on the season on the road. The Avs have had 104 power play opportunities in 2011-12, the fifth fewest in the league.
Colorado has struggled on the penalty killing side of specialty teams, posting a 79.3% kill rate to rank 26th in the circuit in that department. The Avs have posted a more-than-respectable 83% kill rate on home ice this season.