March 29 vs. Boston Bruins at TD Garden
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.
Washington Capitals (38-31-8)
Boston Bruins (45-28-3)
Less than 48 hours after losing control of their playoff destiny, the Washington Capitals face the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in Beantown. It’s the first of Washington’s five remaining games on the regular season slate.
The Caps head into these final five games in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings, two points behind the surging Buffalo Sabres. The Capitals relinquished the eighth spot in the standings to Buffalo on Tuesday when they fell behind early and fell 5-1 to the Sabres at Verizon Center.
“We gave up too many chances early,” says Caps coach Dale Hunter. “We’ve got to be better in the first period. Just like in the playoffs, you can’t fall behind in this league. And we fell behind [Tuesday] night, and we paid the price for it.”
Having won just seven of their last 16 home games (7-6-3), the Caps now seek to keep their season afloat on the road, where they’ve posted a respectable 4-2-1 mark in their last seven games.
The reality of Washington’s situation is that the Capitals could win all five of their remaining games and still miss the playoffs. Buffalo is the league’s hottest team; it has picked up at least a point in 18 of its last 20 games (14-2-4).
The Capitals have to hope the Sabres – or the Ottawa Senators, who are four points ahead of Washington – have a misstep or two in the season’s final 10 days. If that is to happen, the Caps have to hold up their end by helping themselves to four or five wins in the season’s final five games. Anything less is likely to result in the onset of an early – and painfully long – summer in the District for the first time in five years.
The Caps can’t dwell on Tuesday’s loss, they’ve simply got to start stacking up some wins.
“You’ve got to let it go,” says Hunter. “We’ve got a big game against Boston; that’s the attitude that we’re all taking.”
Washington brought three goaltenders along on the trip to Boston: Braden Holtby who started and lost against Buffalo after helping the team to five of a possible six points in his previous three starts; Michal Neuvirth, who came on in relief against the Sabres and has two wins in his last seven starts; and Tomas Vokoun, who has been laid up with a lower body injury since a loss to the Jets in Winnipeg on March 16.
As usual, Hunter didn’t offer a clue as to which of the three would be tabbed for Thursday night’s starting assignment in Boston.
“We are fortunate to have three goalies that can play in the National Hockey League,” says Hunter. “It’s just a matter of which fit I think is going to give us the best chance to win that game.”
The Capitals have taken two of the previous three meetings with the Bruins this season, including their previous trip to Beantown on March 10. The Caps jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead in that one, and held on to take a 4-3 decision.
That win at Boston nearly three weeks ago also marks Vokoun’s last victory. He has played in just one of the team’s last nine games and seven of its last 23. When he was first sidelined with the ailment in mid-February, Vokoun was on a personal 10-5-2 roll and the Caps were in solid shape as far as the playoff chase went.
With its most proven and experienced netminder unavailable for more than half of the last 23 games, Washington has sputtered. The Caps have won just 10 of their last 23 games (10-10-3). Even worse for Washington, other teams near them in the standings have surged on the strength of their own consistent goaltending.
Vokoun believes he is ready to return to action on Thursday against the Bruins.
“There’s a lot riding on the season for me, too,” says the 35-year-old netminder, who signed a one-year deal with Washington last July. “There’s nothing to save anything for. Whatever happens, happens. If I play, I’m going to try to help the team win the game. If it happens to be one game, or two or 10 – I can’t tell you now. But there’s nothing to be saving it for, obviously.
“I wouldn’t play if I couldn’t. If I felt like I wouldn’t be 100 percent out there, I don’t want to hut the guys playing at 90 percent. I feel like I can play 100 percent and hopefully give a good game and win the game.”
Vokoun signed with Washington because he thought his best chance at winning a Stanley Cup came with a team as strong as the Capitals appeared to be on paper last summer.
“I’m almost 36 years old,” says Vokoun. “It’s not like [it is] for some other guys where there are so many more chances; probably not for me. There’s a lot riding on it for me and the team these next five games. If you can, you want to be in there.”
With six games remaining on their own regular season slate, the Bruins hold a five-point lead over second-place Ottawa for the Northeast Division title and the second seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Washington caught the Bruins in a bit of a down cycle when it beat Boston on Jan. 24 at Verizon Center and on March 9 in Boston. This time, the Bruins are on a bit of a roll.
Boston has won three straight games and has held a lead at some point in five of its last six. The Bruins have won five of their last six games, and they have surrendered two or fewer goals in all six contests. Boston has outscored the opposition by a combined 23-10 in its last six games.
“We have to be at our best to beat Boston,” says Hunter, “because they’re a good team. We all know they’re solid. We have to be at our best. We can’t give them chances like we did [against Buffalo Tuesday] night or it’s going to be in the back of our net.”