March 31 vs. Montreal Canadiens 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.
Montreal Canadiens (29-35-14)
Washington Capitals (39-31-8)
Washington’s last six games of the 2011-12 NHL regular season are a tapestry of home games weaved with road games. Fresh from Thursday’s 3-2 shootout win over the Bruins in Boston, the Capitals return home for a Saturday night date with the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center.
The Capitals scored twice in a span of 1:55 in the middle of the third period to take a 2-0 lead over the Bruins, but Boston rallied with two goals of its own in a span of 1:54 in the final four minutes of regulation. Washington held on in overtime and claimed the two points when it scored more goals in the postgame skills session than Boston did.
Washington is now 5-2-1 in its last eight road games, but the Capitals have been struggling on home ice of late. The Caps have won just seven of their last 16 contests (7-6-3) on Verizon Center ice. They’ll almost certainly need to win each of their remaining home games – Saturday against the Canadiens and Thursday against Florida – to reach the playoffs.
With four games remaining, the Caps once again have their postseason destiny back in their own hands. By virtue of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 5-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night, Washington is now the official occupant of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Caps had yielded that same destiny just three nights earlier when they fell 5-1 to the Sabres in their previous game at Verizon Center.
Caps center Nicklas Backstrom has been sidelined since Jan. 3 when he suffered a concussion in a game against the Calgary Flames at Verizon Center. He has missed 40 games, but has been skating for more than two weeks and practicing with his teammates for a week. Backstrom is inching closer to a return to the lineup, and could suit up on Saturday against the Canadiens. That determination will be made after the morning skate prior to the contest.
On Saturday against Montreal, Washington will be gunning for its 40th victory of the season and it will also be aiming to go nine games above the break-even level for the first time this season. The Caps are 10-5-3 in their last 18 games.
It’s quite likely that Michal Neuvirth will get the start in goal for Washington on Saturday against the Canadiens. If that is the case, he will be the third different starter in the last three games for Washington, and the Caps desperately hope he’ll also be the first of those three to finish the game.
Braden Holtby started Tuesday’s loss to the Sabres, but Neuvirth came on in relief after Buffalo bolted out to a 3-0 lead early in the second period. Tomas Vokoun returned from a lower body ailment to make his first start in nearly two weeks on Thursday in Boston, but he was unable to get out of the first period before he re-aggravated that ailment. Neuvirth again came on in relief, and he backstopped the Caps to a key victory, evening his own record at 12-12 5 on the season and recording the 50th victory of his NHL career in the process.
Lifetime against the Canadiens, Neuvirth is 3-1 with a shutout, a 1.82 GAA and a .935 save pct.
Washington has been a very disciplined team in its last seven games, permitting a total of just 11 power play opportunities to its opponents during that span. The Caps’ penalty-killing corps has fared well with the lightened workload, killing off 10 of those 11 without incident. Washington’s penalty killers have been successful on 15 of their last 16 missions in the team’s last eight games for a kill rate of 93.8% during that span.
The Caps have also kept their foes off the scoreboard in the game’s first period in five of their last six games.
Montreal fired assistant coach Perry Pearn in November, whacked head coach Jacques Martin in December, traded top six forward Mike Cammalleri in January, and fired general manager Pierre Gauthier on Thursday morning. None of those moves have had any effect on the Habs on the ice, as the Canadiens are headed toward what could be their first ever basement finish in the Eastern Conference standings.
Gauthier had been Montreal’s GM and executive vice president since February of 2010, and he had been with the organization since 2003. Previously, Gauthier had served the Habs as the team’s director of professional scouting.
Former Habs general manager Bob Gainey is also leaving the team; he is walking away from his advisory role. Yet another former Canadiens general manager – Serge Savard – will help guide ownership in its search for the team’s next GM.
Montreal comes to town on the heels of a 4-1 loss to the Rangers in New York on Friday night. Carey Price was in goal for the Canadiens on Broadway in Friday’s game; he was reached for four goals on the 29 shots he faced.
Lifetime against Washington, Price is 3-6-3 with a 3.11 GAA and an .898 save pct. Canadiens backup goalie Peter Budaj is 0-2 with a 3.48 GAA and an .857 save pct. against the Capitals during his career.
The Habs have won just one of their last seven games (1-3-3).
The Canadiens’ high-water mark of the 2011-12 season came on Dec. 13 when their 5-3 win over the Islanders lifted them to 13-11-7 on the season. Since then, the Habs have won just 16 of 47 games (61-24-7).
Notes: The Capitals are gunning for their first sweep of the season series with the Canadiens since 1996-97 when they went 4-0 against the Habs.