March 18 vs. Chicago Blackhawks at United Center
Time: 6:00 pm TV: NBCSN Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast 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. on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (36-29-6)
Chicago Blackhawks (39-25-8)
Sunday afternoon finds the Capitals in Chicago for a date with the Blackhawks, the middle match of a season-long five-game road swing. Washington’s four-game winning streak – and its three-game road winning streak – both came to a halt on Friday night in Winnipeg when the Caps suffered a 3-2 setback to the Jets.
Washington surrendered the game’s first goal midway through the first frame, and came back to knot the score just 22 seconds later on Brooks Laich’s 15th goal of the season. The Caps fell behind again in the second, then rallied to kill off a lengthy 5-on-3 and take advantage of a rare power play of their own early in the third.
Mathieu Perreault’s 13th goal of the campaign evened the game at 2-2 in the first minute of the third, and it came on a Washington power play. But the Caps fell when Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien scored what would prove to be the game-winner while the two teams were skating four skaters on four midway through the third.
The loss leaves Washington two points ahead of the Jets and three points in front of Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, heading into Saturday’s slate of NHL activity.
Washington has been playing without top center Nicklas Backstrom for more than two months now, since the pivot was sidelined with a concussion sustained in a Jan. 3 game against Calgary. Backstrom has skated on his own for five straight days now – including Saturday – as he bids to get healthy and return to the Washington lineup for the stretch drive and/or the playoffs.
The Caps are 15-14-4 without Backstrom, but their four centers have all had an impact of late.
Perreault has manned the middle of the second unit, skating with Jason Chimera and Alexander Semin. Perreault has two goals in his last three games, and his power play goal against Winnipeg on Friday was his first extra-man tally of the season. Perreault has three career power-play goals in the NHL; his most recent one came on Dec. 19, 2010 at Ottawa in the game that ended Washington’s eight-game losing streak.
Third-line pivot Jay Beagle has been centering a checking unit with Matt Hendricks and Troy Brouwer on the wings. Beagle skated 19:53 in Friday’s loss to the Jets, a single-game career high and the most of any Washington forward in the game. Beagle also skated 5:30 in shorthanded ice time in that contest, a figure that includes 1:39 in which he was on the ice with Hendricks and Karl Alzner, successfully defending a two-man Winnipeg power-play advantage.
Beagle has been a plus or even player for the Capitals in 27 of the 30 games in which he has played this season. He won 14 of 20 face-offs (70%) for the Caps in Friday’s game against the Jets, and his 59.8% face-off success rate on the season is tops on the Capitals.
Fourth-line center Keith Aucoin has been skating with veteran wingers Joel Ward and Mike Knuble. The trio has been effective at cycling and creating scoring chances, and Aucoin started the road swing with the first three-point game of his NHL career (three assists) in Tuesday’s 5-4 shootout win over the Islanders in New York.
Aucoin has a goal and five points in his last six games.
With 11 games remaining on the schedule and the importance of each being magnified with each passing day, the Capitals could use some more consistent offensive presence from their top players who remain in the lineup.
Ovechkin has scored two overtime game-winners in the last couple weeks, and he had two goals against the Isles on Tuesday. He has been held off the scoresheet in 10 of 20 games since the NHL’s All-Star break. That is significant because Washington is 29-6-3 in games in which Ovechkin has recorded at least a point this season.
Semin had put together a run of 30 points in 31 games, but he has cooled significantly since. He has a goal and three points in his last nine games, and he has been held without a point in seven of those nine games.
Defenseman Mike Green returned from a three-game NHL suspension on Friday night in Winnipeg, logging 18:11 on the night. He teed up six shots in the game; four were blocked and two missed the net. Green is now without a point in 14 straight games.
Chicago cooled off the red-hot Dallas Stars on Friday night by a 4-1 score. Playing on the road in the Lone Star State, the Hawks got all the offense they would need in the game’s first two minutes.
Dave Bolland scored the game’s first goal for Chicago just 10 seconds after the opening puck drop. Patrick Sharp followed up with another goal for the Hawks at 1:42 of the first.
The Blackhawks themselves have also been hot recently. Since a three-game skid in late February, the Hawks are 6-1-1 in their last eight games.
The Hawks have been one of the NHL’s top teams on home ice this season; they’re 24-7-5 at United Center in 2011-12. Including Winnipeg, the cumulative home ice record of the Caps’ final four road opponents on this five-game road swing is a daunting 92-31-16.
Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have split the netminding chores for the Blackhawks this season. Neither has been spectacular, and the Hawks have allowed an average of 2.86 goals per game this season. That ranks them 24th in the league, lowest among all clubs that are currently in a playoff position.
Chicago’s potent attack has averaged 2.94 goals per game this season, the seventh-best figure in the NHL.