February 24 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 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.
Montreal Canadiens (24-27-10)
Washington Capitals (29-26-5)
After enduring a season-long four-game road trip, the Caps return for a quick one-game home stop against the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night. The visit to Verizon is the first of two for the Habs this season.
The Friday game against Montreal is the middle match of three straight against Canadian clubs. The Caps concluded their four-game journey on Wednesday with a 5-2 loss to the Senators in Ottawa. On Saturday night, Washington travels to Toronto for a Hockey Night in Canada contest against the Maple Leafs.
The loss to Ottawa was Washington’s third in succession, marking the first time the Caps have gone three straight games without earning a point since Dale Hunter took over the coaching reins from Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28. The Caps had a four-game losing streak from Nov. 25-Dec. 1, with the team losing the last two games of the Boudreau era and the first two of Hunter’s administration during that span.
Although they’ve sputtered along with just five wins in their last 17 games (5-9-3), the Caps are still just two points out of the top spot in the Southeast Division going into Thursday night’s NHL action. The Caps have received more than their fair share of help from the out-of-town scoreboard lately, but they know they’ve also got to start helping themselves at some point, and soon.
“We’re right here,” says Hunter. “We’re right in the battle. We’ve just got to win some games. It’s another big weekend here with Montreal and then Toronto. We need the points just like the teams we’re battling with need the points. It’s like playoff hockey. It’s tight, and we’ve got to come up with some points.”
Slow starts have dogged the Caps this season, particularly on the road. Washington has scored just 14 first-period goals while allowing 35 in the first 20 minutes. As a result, the Caps have led just four times after the first period in their 31 road games of 2011-12.
At home, the Caps have outscored foes 25-19 in the first frame this season. That has translated into a dozen leads after the first in Washington’s 29 home games; the Caps are 11-0-1 when leading after the first frame at Verizon Center this season.
“You can take things from it,” said right wing Troy Brouwer after Wednesday’s loss at Ottawa, “but at the end of the day we needed to have a better start and have a better effort and get two points. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters right now. We’ve got to find a way to get points to start climbing the standings.”
Washington was outscored by a combined 7-0 in the first period of its four games on the road trip.
“I think our record is extremely not good when we fall behind 1-0,” said Brouwer. “It’s because of that that we need to get good starts, especially on the road. Going down 7-0 in the first period of the four games that we played, it’s just not a good thing to have to come back from.
“We’ve been able to come back a few games here and there late in games, but at this time of year teams are too sound in their systems and in their defensive play that you’re not going to get very many games where you are going to be able to come back late in them.”
The Capitals spent a good deal of Thursday’s practice working on their power play. Special teams have let the team down of late, and they need to be shored up going forward.
“We’ve got to improve on the power play,” says Hunter. “We worked on it again today. We made a few changes on it. Our power play has got to be better. We’re concentrating on special teams. At even strength, we’ve been good, but our special teams have to be better.”
Since their modest three-game winning streak in mid-January, the Caps are 6-for-51 (11.8%) with the extra man in their last 17 games. The Capitals are 46-for-61 (75.4%) on the penalty kill during that same period.
Washington has had their way with the Canadiens in the two games played between the two clubs north of the border this season. Michal Neuvirth whitewashed the Habs by a 3-0 count in Montreal on Jan. 18 and Tomas Vokoun followed suit by an identical score just over two weeks later on Feb. 4.
Those two whitewashes combined with Braden Holtby’s 2-0 blanking of the Habs in Montreal last March 26 give Washington three straight shutouts of the Canadiens in Montreal, dating back to the tail end of last season.
The Habs sputtered out to a 1-5-2 start this season. The Canadiens came back with a 7-2-1 stretch in their next 10 games, but were unable to put together more than two straight wins for the next three months. By the time they ran together a string of four consecutive wins earlier this month, it was too late. The Habs were too far gone.
Montreal fired assistant coach Perry Pearn in November. It canned head coach Jacques Martin in December. Last season’s second-leading scorer Mike Cammalleri was dealt to Calgary in January and redwood defenseman Hal Gill was swapped to Nashville in February.
With their string of seasons without a Stanley Cup title now creeping up on two decades, the Habs have gone longer without the chalice than any other Original Six team aside from the Maple Leafs. Expect more changes ahead for Montreal this summer.
The Canadiens come into Friday night’s game – the first stop on a three-game road trip – with just one win in their last five games (1-3-1). The Habs lost each of their last two games on home ice, scoring just one goal in the two games combined.