December 26 vs. Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center
Time: 7:00 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 (17-14-2)
Buffalo Sabres (16-15-3)
Exactly a month ago, the Capitals were in Buffalo for the first of their two annual visits to western New York. That game didn’t go well for Washington; the Sabres slammed the Caps by a 5-1 count in what turned out to be the last game of the Bruce Boudreau era in Washington.
Dale Hunter replaced Boudreau behind the Washington bench two days later. The Capitals have posted a 5-5-1 mark in the 11 games since Hunter has been behind the bench.
Most recently, the Caps suffered a 4-3 shootout loss to the Devils on Friday night in New Jersey. The Capitals dug themselves a 3-0 hole by the middle of the second period, but rallied in the third to draw even.
“It’s a little bit different, but you can’t use it as an excuse. We do it in pre-season. The guys that have played in the minors have done it in the minors. Just because you’ve been here for a while doesn’t mean it’s an excuse. It’s still a very important hockey game.
The game against the Devils started a four-game stretch in which Washington will face Eastern Conference foes, teams the Capitals are either trying to catch or trying to distance themselves from.
Buffalo falls into the latter category.
“You look at the standings right now and Buffalo and us are neck and neck,” says Caps center Brooks Laich. “They’re a team that some would say has underachieved and [you should] expect more [from]. They had Stanley Cup aspirations in the off-season around there with the changes they made and the new ownership. Certainly around here we know what we expect, too.”
Washington is 5-3-1 in its last nine games, and it has allowed a combined total of just five goals in its last four games. Michal Neuvirth has started each of those four contests for the Capitals, his longest string of consecutive regular season starts since Feb. 21-March 7 when he received seven straight starting assignments.
Normally, the Caps would head up to Buffalo the day before the game. But with the Christmas holiday, Washington will fly to Buffalo on Monday morning, skate at First Niagara Center shortly before noon, and then return home to the District after the game.
It’s not the normal mode of travel, but Laich doesn’t see any issues with it.
“We can’t use anything as a crutch or as an excuse,” he says. “We have to be prepared to win that hockey game.
“I think we’re kind of lucky with our schedule. We played away on [Dec. 23] and we play away on Boxing Day. It’s not like we have a bunch of family in town and they’re sitting around and we’re entertaining people and guests and showing people this place or that place or taking people shopping.
“When you’re on the road, your sole focus is on the hockey game. I think we’re actually kind of fortunate to have some road games in here.”
The Caps are just 1-for-14 on the power play in their last five games. Washington has a 16.8% success rate with the man advantage on the season; the Caps rank 19th in the league in that department.
Washington’s penalty kill rate has climbed to 16th in the circuit on the season at 82.2%. The Caps have successfully killed off 17 of 18 (94.4%) shorthanded situations in their last six games.
The Buffalo Sabres started the 2011-12 season on a roll, winning five of their first six games. They authored a four-game winning run in early November and seemed poised to fulfill their off-season promise of being one of the five or six best teams in the Eastern Conference, with a 10-5 record at the 15-game mark.
Buffalo has one win in its last six games (1-4-1).
A relentless spate of injuries decimated the Sabres early in the campaign, and they have been unable to put together consecutive victories since that four-game winning streak in early November. Buffalo currently sits a point behind the Capitals in the Eastern Conference standings; the Sabres are currently in 11th place.
Although the Sabres do have netminder Ryan Miller back in action again after a three-week absence because of injury, they’re still without several key cogs in their lineup. The Sabres could be without half a dozen or so regulars when Washington visits on Monday.
Buffalo expects to have forward Brad Boyes back soon after an absence of a month; he could return as soon as Monday against the Capitals. Defenseman Tyler Myers is also healing and drawing closer t a return. He has missed more than a month with a wrist injury but may be less than a week away from returning.
Sabres leading scorer Thomas Vanek didn’t finish Buffalo’s most recent game, a 3-2 loss to the Leafs in Toronto on Thursday. Vanek is questionable for Monday’s contest.
The Sabres are 5-for-18 (27.6%) on the power play in their last four games. On the season, the Sabres rank 14th in the league in power play prowess with a success rate of 18.1%.
Buffalo’s penalty killing outfit is the ninth best in the NHL with a kill rate of 84.1%.