February 17 vs. Florida Panthers at BankAtlantic Center
Time: 7:30 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 5:00 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5:00 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (28-23-5)
Florida Panthers (27-18-11)
Washington opens up a crucial four-game road trip on Friday when it takes on the Panthers in South Florida. This is the last of the Capitals’ three seasonal visits to the BankAtlantic Center; they’re still seeking their first victory in the Panthers’ house this season.
In the throes of a three-game losing streak for the first time since they dropped four in a row from Nov. 25-Dec. 1, the Caps are three points behind Toronto for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings and they are four points behind the Panthers for the top spot in the Southeast Division.
The Capitals have one more win than Florida but the Panthers have five fewer regulation losses than Washington. The Cats have a league-leading 11 overtime and shootout losses.
Washington has had the last three days to rest and practice for the grueling stretch of hockey ahead – six games in nine nights with five of the six on the road. The Caps won’t have as many as three days between games again for the remainder of the regular season.
“For us,” says Caps defenseman Dennis Wideman, “It needs to be a combination of getting a rest – healing whatever bumps and bruises we might have – and then working on a few things. Obviously we’re not playing as well as we need to going down the stretch here and I think it’s a good time to sit back, take a look at some video, recharge the batteries and get ready to go here on the stretch run.”
These next six games are also the team’s last tilts before the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline.
“We’ve been talking about that a little bit,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “Depending on how we play, we could be a team that is trying to get the missing pieces or the opposite. You never know exactly what exactly is being thought upstairs. We’ve got to win these games. We need to get in the hunt. We’re on the outside looking in, which is a terrible spot to be in. You don’t want to have it come down right to the very end. We’re fully prepared for a battle here.”
Winners of just two of their last nine road games (2-5-2), the Caps have not forged a road win against a team currently in the playoff picture since Dec. 7 when they earned a 5-3 come-from-behind triumph over the Senators in Ottawa.
If they hope to claw their way back into the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference standings, the Capitals know they must start winning hockey games on the road. There is no better place for the Caps to start that trend than on Friday night against the Panthers in Florida.
The Capitals have taken each of the two games between the two teams in Washington, with goaltender Tomas Vokoun pitching shutouts in each of two games against his former Florida teammates. Michal Neuvirth has gotten the nod in net in each of the Caps’ two previous games against the Cats in Florida. He was on the short end of a 5-4 loss here on Dec. 5 and a 4-2 setback on Feb. 1.
Each of Washington’s last four goals has been scored by a different defenseman. John Carlson finished off the scoring with a goal late in the third period of Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers in New York. In Monday’s 5-3 home ice defeat at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, Dmitry Orlov, Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Schultz accounted for the Capitals’ offensive output.
Two-time Norris Trophy winner Mike Green has been limited to just 11 games this season because of injuries, but he is nearly ready to return from mid-January sports hernia surgery. Green is on the road trip with the Caps and could return to the lineup as soon as this weekend.
“I’ve got to get my lungs back,” said Green after Wednesday’s practice with his teammates. “But overall I felt good. Another day that’s in the right direction.”
Green’s return should help boost a Washington attack that has generated more shots toward the net and more offensive zone pressure of late.
“Coaches have wanted more shots, obviously,” says Caps general manager George McPhee. “But what’s important is scoring chances more than shots and we’ve been really good in that area, consistently getting better scoring chances than the opposition. That’s really how we measure the team, by how we’re doing in that department. Not necessarily shots on goal, but are we outchancing the other teams? And who is getting the chances and who is giving them up? That’s basically one of the ways we analyze how we’re doing with the club.
“We’ve been doing a much better job. Part of that is not turning it over, keeping the puck in front of you and getting pucks toward their net. We’ve been guilty of spending too much time in our own zone and then when we are attacking, trying to get too cute. When you turn it over at the blueline, it’s always trouble.”
Washington’s last win was a convincing 4-0 win over the Panthers at Verizon Center last Tuesday. The Caps have just 26 games remaining on their schedule. They’ve won just three of their last 11 games (3-5-3).
In the wake of their 4-0 loss at Washington last Tuesday, the Panthers reeled off three consecutive victories in a span of just four nights, allowing a single goal in each contest. The Panthers’ winning streak came to an end on Wednesday when they absorbed a 6-2 home ice drubbing at the hands of the Ottawa Senators.
That loss to the Senators prevented Florida from achieving its first four-game winning streak of the season. It would have been the Panthers’ first four-game winning streak since the team put together a franchise record seven-game run from March 2-16, 2008.
Goaltender Scott Clemmensen has started each of the last three games between the Panthers and the Capitals. Ex-Caps goalie Jose Theodore still hasn’t started against his former Washington teammates since he departed the District at the conclusion of the 2009-10 season. Theodore was bothered by a knee injury when the Caps last visited South Florida less than three weeks ago, but he recently returned to live action.