December 30 vs. Buffalo Sabres at Verizon 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 5 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Buffalo Sabres (17-16-3)
Washington Capitals (18-15-2)
If there is a team that hasn’t seen the Washington Capitals at their best this season, it would be the Buffalo Sabres. In two visits to Buffalo this season, Washington has been consistently and convincingly underwhelming, losing 5-1 and 4-2 decisions.
The Caps get another chance to show the Sabres what they’re capable of on Friday when Buffalo makes the first of its two seasonal visits to Verizon Center. The game is a four-point tilt in the Eastern Conference standings as the Capitals go into Thursday night’s NHL action in 10th place in the East with 38 points. Buffalo is 11th with 37 points.
The Caps are coming off one of their best all-around efforts of the season, a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers at Verizon Center on Wednesday. Washington started strong and finished stronger in that game, and had virtually every facet of its game clicking as it put a halt to New York’s five-game wining streak and helped knock the Rangers from the top perch in the Eastern Conference standings.
“It was more of us, the way we played, than anything,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera of his team’s first two games against Buffalo. “New York came in pretty hot, and we played pretty good against them and played the right way. We still haven’t played the right way against [the Sabres]. We got down early, we needed a bigger save, we needed better for our top players, better from our role players, everybody. Everybody was pretty bad in those games, I think it’s fair to say.
“We want to keep going here. We had a good step forward against New York, and we want to keep building on that.”
After posting poor starts in consecutive road games at New Jersey and Buffalo, the Capitals came out strong on Wednesday against the Rangers. Getting an early lead and not having to dig out of a huge hole made a big difference in Washington’s mindset.
“I think the biggest thing for us,” begins Caps center Jeff Halpern, “was the start of the game, especially after the Buffalo game and the way we’ve been playing.
“I think when you’re playing a team that’s tops in your conference, you want to make sure you’re getting off to a good start. We wanted to be able to dictate a little bit of the game as opposed to being on our heels like we have been. [The Rangers] did a good job getting the forecheck going and cycling going. I thought we did a good enough job holding them and [goaltender] Tomas [Vokoun] came up with some big saves.”
Now, the trick for Washington is to find a way to parlay that strong performance into a string of wins. The Caps have not won more than two games consecutively in more than two months. Each of the next three opponents on Washington’s schedule is south of the eighth and final playoff spot in its respective conference right now.
“I think the preparation is the biggest thing,” says Chimera. “I think we knew what we had coming in against New York. We knew how good they were playing. I don’t know if guys were scared of being hammered on, but that fear of playing bad, I think you’ve got to have that. You’ve got to want to play better. We’ve got to get back up there [in the standings]. I think the mental preparation is the biggest thing; you’ve got to be ready to go each game. There’s no excuse not to play like that.”
Vokoun made his first start since Dec. 13 in Wednesday’s win over the Rangers, stopping 31 of the 32 shots he faced to earn his 13th win of the season. The 15 days between starts was the most Vokoun had gone in five years, since he missed 20 games with a thumb injury during the first half of the 2006-07 campaign.
“It’s nice to get a win and have a good game,” notes Vokoun. “Saying that, next game is going to start 0-0. You don’t get anything for free in this league.”
With the win over the Rangers, the Capitals are now 6-6-1 in the 13 games they’ve played under head coach Dale Hunter, who took over behind the Washington bench from Bruce Boudreau a month ago. One of the Capitals’ biggest areas of improvement during Hunter’s first month on the job has been in the team’s 5-on-5 play. The Caps have allowed two or fewer even-strength goals in 12 of 13 games under Hunter, and they’ve allowed a total of 25 even-strength tallies in his 13 games.
Contrast that with the final 13 games of the Boudreau administration in which Washington surrendered 40 even-strength goals and limited the opposition to two or fewer just four times in those 13 contests.
“You look at this team,” says Vokoun, “we’re a good team. We haven’t showed that in a long time, or we do for one game. If we play consistently like that, it’s hard to beat us. But when we come out like we did in Buffalo, it doesn’t matter who it is. They’re going to pick you apart. It’s too hard when you’re down two or three goals five minutes or 10 minutes into the game. It’s hard for any team to come back.”
Since reeling off four straight wins from Nov. 4-11, Buffalo has been unable to win even two games in succession. After jumping out to an early 4-0 lead over Washington and beating the Caps 4-2 on Monday, the Sabres were unable to build on that success. They dropped a 3-1 decision to the Devils in New Jersey on Wednesday.
Buffalo is now 4-7-2 in its last 13 games, and two of those victories came at Washington’s expense.
The Sabres have scored at least one power play goal in each of their last four games, and they are 8-for-27 (29.6%) with the extra man in their last half dozen games. Buffalo went 2-for-5 with the extra man in Monday’s 4-2 win over Washington at First Niagara Center.