February 4 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre
Time: 2:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Capitals Report/Pre-Cap Podcast at 10 a.m., Two-Man Advantage at 10 a.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 10 a.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (26-20-4)
Montreal Canadiens (19-23-9)
Washington heads to Montreal for a Saturday afternoon game against the Canadiens. The contest concludes a three-game trip for the Caps and also ends a stretch in which Washington plays six of seven games on the road.
The Capitals came out of the All-Star break with back-to-back road contests against divisional foes in Tampa Bay and Florida, respectively. Washington was able to pull just one point out of those contests despite facing career back-up goaltenders Mathieu Garon and Scott Clemmensen, respectively.
“It was [disappointing],” says Caps coach Dale Hunter of Wednesday’s loss in Florida, a setback the set the Caps back to ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings. “We were right there. It was a tight hockey game. They got a power play goal that made it 2-1, it was a big goal against us.”
Washington gets Alex Ovechkin back from his league-mandated three-game suspension on Saturday against the Habs. Washington went 1-1-1 in their captain’s absence, but several of the team’s forwards stepped up their games while Ovechkin was out of the lineup.
“Matty [Perreault] did, he played very well,” says Hunter. “Other guys raised their games. I thought Alex Semin was creating a lot of offense for us, and [Marcus Johansson] he was, too.”
Perhaps the Caps’ best unit was the one that features Brooks Laich skating between Matt Hendricks and Troy Brouwer. Cobbled together initially to serve as a checking unit against the dangerous Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh on Jan. 22, the Laich line has morphed into more of an offensive outfit in the last two contests. Each of its members has scored in the last two games, and the trio has forechecked well, spending most of its time on ice in the attack zone.
“Brooksie’s line was very good,” says Hunter. “They gave us a lot of energy, they forechecked hard and they created offense. Everybody chips in. I thought Hendy and Brooksie and Brouws did a great job.”
Hunter seems inclined to keep that unit together for Saturday’s game against Montreal, even with the return of Ovechkin and the addition of veteran Keith Aucoin from AHL Hershey. The Laich line remained intact at Friday’s practice, while Ovechkin was skating with Johansson and Semin.
What does Ovechkin hope to add in his return?
“Score more goals,” he told the media on Thursday. “I miss hockey a lot. It’s nine days, almost 10 days without hockey. I’m pretty depressed, but practicing is good. When you know you can’t play a hockey game and you stay out for the morning skate and the bag skates, nobody likes it.”
Washington’s other lines for Friday’s practice consisted of Perreault centering for Jason Chimera and Mike Knuble and a fourth line that included two right-handed centers (Aucoin and Jeff Halpern) and a third right-handed shot in Joel Ward.
The Caps waived forward Joel Rechlicz on Friday, four days after signing him to an NHL contract. Assuming he clears waivers, Rechlicz will be reassigned to AHL Hershey. The Caps reassigned center Cody Eakin to Hershey on Thursday.
Washington has won just six of its last 23 road games (6-14-3) and it has fallen out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference standings.
“Our game is we have to play our system,” says Ovechkin. “If we play our system, it doesn’t matter what system we play. If we play our system and everybody is on the same page, we win the game easily. But sometimes if a couple players fall off the system, it’s going to be pretty hard to win the game, especially right now because everybody plays well and everybody knows every point is an important point.”
The Canadiens come into Saturday’s game on the heels of a 5-3 loss to the Devils in Newark on Thursday. The Habs held a two-goal lead late in the second, but squandered it when they surrendered three Devils goals in the third.
Heading into Friday night’s five-game slate of NHL activity, the Canadiens are tied with Carolina and the New York Islanders for the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference standings. All three clubs have 47 points. Carolina has played 53 games, Montreal 51 and New York 49.
Montreal is 15th in the league in goals scored this season with an average of 2.61 tallies per game. The Habs have scored 60 goals in their last 21 games, an average of just under three per contest. But Montreal has allowed 64 goals over that same span, resulting in an underwhelming 7-12-2 record during that stretch.
Montreal right wing Mike Blunden was injured after a Patrik Elias check into the boards in Thursday’s game. The Habs recalled Aaron Palushaj from AHL Hamilton on Friday. Plushaj was leading the Bulldogs with 13 goals and 29 points at the time of his recall. He played in 15 games with the Canadiens earlier this season without registering a point.
Veteran Habs center Scott Gomez has now gone 50 games and nearly a year without scoring a goal. His most recent tally came on Feb. 5, 2011. It was the game-winning strike in a 2-0 win against his former employers, the New York Rangers.
Montreal back-up netminder Peter Budaj has started just seven of Montreal’s first 51 games this season, but he is reported to be getting the nod for Saturday’s game with the Capitals. Budaj is 2-4-1 with a 2.69 GAA and a .910 save pct. in his limited action this season. He has made two career appearances (one start) against the Capitals, posting a 0-1 record with a 3.81 GAA and a .848 save pct. in just 79 minutes of work.
The Habs host the Winnipeg Jets at Bell Centre on Sunday afternoon. No. 1 netminder Carey Price will likely be back between the pipes for that game.
The Canadiens’ special teams are polar opposites of one another. On the one hand, Montreal features the league’s second-best penalty killing outfit with a kill rate of 89.3% on the season. The Habs have allowed a mere 21 power play goals in 51 games this season.
On the other hand, the Habs have the league’s least potent power play with a 12.3% success rate on the season. Montreal has had multiple power play goals in the same game just twice in its 51 contests this season, and the Habs haven’t had more than one extra-man tally in a game since they went 2-for-6 on the power play in a 4-0 home ice win over the Rangers on Nov. 19. Since then, the Habs have gone 12-for-117 (10.3%) on the power play.