December 31 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena
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 (19-15-2)
Columbus Blue Jackets (10-22-5)
Washington closes out the calendar 2011 portion of its 2011-12 schedule on Saturday night in Columbus when it faces the Blue Jackets for the only time this season. The game also concludes the Capitals’ first set of games on back-to-back nights in more than a month.
Beginning with their 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2011 Winter Classic, the Caps are 45-26-8 (98 points) in the 79 games they've played in calendar 2011.
The Caps downed the Buffalo Sabres by a 3-1 count on Friday night at Verizon Center to win the front end of this weekend’s back-to-back games. Washington is now 6-3-1 in its last 10 games. The Caps have allowed just 26 even-strength goals in 14 games since Dale Hunter took over the coaching reins on Nov. 28.
Friday’s win over the Sabres enabled the Caps to keep Buffalo in its rear-view mirror in the Eastern Conference standings. Washington leads the Sabres by two points, and is just a point behind a cluster of four teams tied for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals are also now five points behind Florida for the top spot in the Southeast Division, and the Panthers have played two more games than Washington.
“It was a big game for us,” says Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun, who earned his 14th win of the season in Friday’s win over the Sabres. “I’ve been on teams where we were trying to chase teams down. When there are 20 games left in the season, everybody is getting into three-points [games]. Every game goes to overtime and it’s really hard. We don’t want to be in that position to hope somebody is going to go into a funk or something. I think we are way too good to be in that position.
“It’s still early, but it’s like everything else. You don’t want to leave it until the last minute.”
Coupled with Wednesday’s win over the New York Rangers, the victory over Buffalo gives the Caps their fourth two-game winning run since they reeled off seven straight wins at the outset of the 2011-12 season.
If Washington is able to extend that winning streak to three on Saturday in Columbus, it will have gone 27 games in between winning streaks of at least three games in length. That’s the Capitals’ longest drought between three-game winning streaks since the club went the final 39 games of the 2006-07 season without winning as many as three straight.
The Caps have won three straight at home, using a fast start to fuel that winning formula. Now they need to bring that game with them out on the road.
“I think we need to be better on the road,” says Vokoun. “You look at our road record, that’s what’s hurting us the most. We’ve just got to play smarter. We came out a few times sluggish, we gave up quick leads and on the road it’s twice as hard to come back on teams. Then you’ve got to press, and you make a mistake and they put it in the net, the game is out of reach. We’ve got to make sure we play a patient game, but play hard and play smart.”
Washington is 6-10-1 on the road this season.
The Caps have not held a lead at all in any of their last three road games (0-2-1). They haven’t trailed at all in their last three games at home.
The Jackets are occupying the basement of the Central Division, Western Conference and NHL standings, a spot where they’ve spent most of the season.
Columbus stumbled from the outset this season, dropping eight straight (0-7-1) out of the starting gate. Injuries dogged the Jackets for much of the early portion of the season, but the team has not played significantly better as it has gotten healthier.
Only five of the Blue Jackets’ 10 victories have come in regulation, and Columbus has won consecutive contests just once this season. Those back-to-back wins came on Nov. 19-21 over Nashville and Calgary, respectively. The Blue Jackets needed overtime to gain the decision over the Predators.
Columbus is coming into Saturday night’s game on the heels of a 4-1 road victory over the Stars in Dallas. That win was the Blue Jackets’ first road victory in regulation since last March 12 when they downed the Hurricanes by a 3-2 score in Raleigh.
Prior to Thursday’s win in Dallas, the Jackets had won just four of their previous 23 road contests. Two of those triumphs came via the shootout and two came in overtime.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Jackets’ streak without a regulation road win was the second-longest in the NHL in the last 18 years. Edmonton went 28 games between regulation road triumphs from December 2009 to October 2010.
Before their Thursday win in Dallas, Columbus had dropped six straight games (0-5-1).
The Blue Jackets surrendered a total of 42 goals in their first 11 games of December, and they posted a 3-7-1 record in those games with all three victories coming as the result of a shootout. Columbus has allowed just a single goal in each of its last two games, however, and is 1-0-1 in those tilts.
Columbus ranks in the lower reaches among all NHL teams in goals scored, goals against, power play and penalty killing. One area in which the Jackets have done well is in maintaining their discipline. Columbus has been tasked with more than three penalty killing chores just three times in its last 20 games. On the season, the Jackets have been shorthanded just 117 times, the fourth fewest in the NHL.