March 27 vs. Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at 3:00 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 3:00 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com.
Buffalo Sabres (37-29-10)
Washington Capitals (38-30-8)
Washington’s three-game homestand concludes on Tuesday night when the Buffalo Sabres pay a visit to Verizon Center in a game of significant magnitude in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Coming into Tuesday’s contest, both the Capitals and the Sabres are tied for the eighth and final playoff berth in the conference. Whichever team gets two points from Tuesday’s tilt will control its own destiny the rest of the way. Both the Caps and the Sabres will have five games remaining on their regular season slates after Tuesday.
Both Buffalo and Washington were expected to be among the Eastern Conference’s elite clubs at the outset of the 2011-12 season. Both got off to strong starts, but both faded soon after. The Caps have been hovering around the playoff picture for most of the season, but the Sabres were fairly far south of playoff positioning fairly recently.
Washington started the season with seven straight wins, but the Caps didn’t get themselves eight games better than break-even until they defeated the Islanders in New York on March 13. Washington got back to eight games above break-even with its 3-0 shutout win over the Minnesota Wild on Sunday. The Caps can move nine games to the good for the first time this season with a win over the Sabres on Tuesday.
The Caps have collected at least a point in four straight games (2-0-2) and they’ve posted a 9-4-3 mark in their last 16 contests.
Rookie goaltender Braden Holtby started three of the Capitals’ four games last week, helping the team to five of a possible six standings points in those contests. Coming off a 28-save shutout over the Wild on Sunday, he is almost certain to get the nod in the nets for Washington again on Tuesday against the Sabres.
“It’s pretty big,” says Holtby of Sunday’s win over Minnesota, a triumph that enabled the Caps to keep pace with the red-hot Sabres. “That’s’ a big game for our team, it keeps us even with Buffalo. Every game right now is confidence with winning. It’s a big game, but at the same time it’s in the past now. The focus is on the next one.”
Holtby was recalled from AHL Hershey for the fourth time this season last Sunday while the Caps were in Chicago. He got the net the next night in Detroit, and is 2-0-1 with a 1.30 GAA and a .955 save pct. in three starts since. Holtby has stopped 85 of the 89 shots he has faced in those three starts.
Even though he has spent most of the season in the AHL, it hasn’t taken Holtby long to slip into playoff mode with Washington.
“It’s definitely easy,” he says. “Even when I’m down there, you can still watch the team and see how they’re doing and see how close this battle is. It’s hockey, still. You still want to win no matter what. When I get up here, it’s even better. It’s a playoff race. It’s more fun to come to the rink; it’s what us hockey players live for.”
Holtby is used to being around the chase at this time of the season; he spent most of last March with Washington as the Capitals were gearing up for the playoffs.
Lifetime in the month of March during his brief NHL career, Holtby is 8-0-1 with three shutouts, a 1.13 GAA and a .960 save pct.
Holtby was recalled because of an injury to Tomas Vokoun, who has started only eight of the Caps’ last 23 games. Michal Neuvirth is 2-3-2 with a 3.07 GAA and an .891 save pct. in the month of March, opening the door for Holtby to take the reins.
“It’s great,” said Caps right wing Mike Knuble after Holtby blanked the Wild. “Tomas goes down, and it could be a big drop-off. It could be all on Neuvy’s shoulders. They’ve all played well, but Holts played steady, just solid games for us. I can’t think of a soft goal [he has given up]. Every goal him has been legit. He’s played hard and he deserved [his shutout].”
As good as the Caps have been lately, it pales in comparison to the Sabres. Buffalo has been the league’s hottest team for more than a month now.
The Sabres have picked up at least a point in nine of their last 10 games (7-1-2) and in 17 of their last 19 contests (13-2-4).
Although Buffalo ranks 22nd in the league with an average of 2.5 goals scored per game and 18th in the circuit with an average of 2.67 goals against per game,
The Sabres woke up on Feb. 17 in 14th place in the Eastern Conference standings. They were still 10 points south of eighth place at that juncture of the season.
Now, they’re pounding on the door and threatening to kick it in. Buffalo is seeking to become just the second team in NHL history to claw its way out of a 10-point hole in the standings this late in the season and make the playoffs. The 1993-94 New York Islanders went from 10 points out on Feb. 18, 1994 to earn the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Buffalo started the season with a 10-5 mark in its first 15 games, but wobbled to a 14-22-6 over the next 42 contests, the equivalent of more than half a season.
“They’re a team with increasing confidence,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble of the Sabres. “Their confidence is just growing every game. It’s a very hungry team right now. They’re going to be up for the challenge and they’re going to be here waiting and they’re ready to try and take it from us. It’s got to be our mission and our job not to let it happen. We’ve got the advantage of playing at home, we’ve got to use it to our advantage on Tuesday.”
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller has been on fire since the All-Star break, posting a 17-3-5 mark with five shutouts, a 1.87 GAA and a .937 save pct. in his last 26 games (25 starts). His hot spell has propelled the Sabres back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Captain Jason Pominville (28 goals) and Thomas Vanek (24 goals) have been Buffalo’s top offensive weapons this season, but both have been playing on separate lines as of late.
Ironically enough, neither Pominville nor Vanek is part of the Sabres’ hottest trio of forwards. That distinction belongs to rookie Marcus Foligono, sophomore Tyler Ennis and veteran Drew Stafford. That trio has combined for a whopping 15 goals and 34 points in the team’s last eight games.
Buffalo forwards Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Kaleta had been on the sidelines, but both have been given the green light to return to action on Tuesday in Washington.
“It’s definitely the kind of games that everyone wants to coach and play,” says Caps coach Dale Hunter of Tuesday’s game between the Caps and the Sabres. “It’s like game seven of a [playoff] series. It’s a big game. The players know it, we know it, so does the other team know it and their coaches know it. It should be a heck of a game.
“You’re anticipating a great game. Both teams are going to come out and battle. Whoever executes the best is going to win this game.”