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Posted On Friday, 05.10.2013 / 7:44 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Capitals-Rangers series blog

Wilson replacing Erat in Capitals' lineup

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Prospect Tom Wilson is making his NHL debut for the Washington Capitals Friday in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers (NBCSN, TSN, RDS2).

The Capitals' first-round pick (No. 16) in the 2012 NHL Draft was recalled Thursday from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League and is skating on Washington's fourth line alongside Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle in Game 5.

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Posted On Friday, 05.10.2013 / 2:19 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Capitals-Rangers series blog

Hart honor nice, but Ovechkin focused on winning

ARLINGTON, Va. -- When the Washington Capitals were faced with a 10-point deficit in the Southeast Division standings in mid-March and were in danger of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six years, Alex Ovechkin turned his season around.

Beginning March 14, Ovechkin had a League-high 23 goals and 36 points in the final 23 games of the regular season as the Capitals went 17-4-2 to clinch the division title.

Ovechkin's efforts were recognized Friday when he was named one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy, awarded annually to the "player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team." Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and John Tavares of the New York Islanders are the other finalists.

"It's nice and I'm sure I'm going to have time to celebrate later, but right now it's all about business and focus on the game," Ovechkin said as the Capitals prepared Friday for Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS2).

"It's big. It means like I'm still [a factor]," he said of his fourth career Hart Trophy nomination, his first since 2009-10. "It was a hard year, it was hard season for all of us, and I'm happy to be in that kind of position."

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Posted On Thursday, 05.09.2013 / 1:33 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Capitals-Rangers series blog

Capitals' Erat to miss Game 5

ARLINGTON, Va. -- According to Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates, forward Martin Erat will not play in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers on Friday.

Erat left Game 4 on Wednesday with an upper-body injury with 1:34 remaining in the first period after a collision involving teammate Alex Ovechkin and Rangers forward Derek Stepan.

Erat was favoring his left forearm as he returned to the Capitals dressing room, and Oates said Thursday the team is awaiting results on an MRI exam.

Erat's injury means that the Capitals' lineup will have a different look for Game 5 at Verizon Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS2), but Oates would not confirm who will draw a sweater.

The first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series is even at two games apiece.

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Posted On Thursday, 05.02.2013 / 8:15 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Capitals-Rangers series blog

Ward's return adds depth, experience for Capitals

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Forward Joel Ward returned to the Washington Capitals lineup Thursday for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers.

Ward missed the final nine games of the regular season with a knee injury he suffered after blocking a shot by Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Sami Salo on April 7.

"I get a chance to play," Ward said. "I'm excited, for sure, and I get to reunite with my buddies, so I'm pretty happy about that."

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Posted On Tuesday, 04.30.2013 / 3:08 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Capitals-Rangers series blog

Capitals hoping to have Ward back for opener

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Forward Joel Ward could return to the Washington Capitals' lineup for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, according to coach Adam Oates.

Ward missed the final nine games of the regular season with a left knee injury he suffered April 7 after blocking a shot from Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Sami Salo.

Ward is targeting a return for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals on Thursday against the New York Rangers and practiced with his teammates Tuesday for the second straight day.

"You know what, it was really encouraging that he took a full practice at full speed," Oates said. "He said he felt good. As long as there are no setbacks [Wednesday], yeah, I expect him."

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Posted On Saturday, 04.27.2013 / 12:36 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Flu sidelines Jagr, while Bruins remain without Horton

WASHINGTON -- The Boston Bruins will be without Jaromir Jagr on Saturday as they face the Washington Capitals in their next-to-last game of the regular-season.

Jagr remained in Boston with the flu while Nathan Horton will miss his third straight game with an upper-body injury. According to Bruins coach Claude Julien, both players are day-to-day.

Since joining the Bruins earlier this month in a trade with the Dallas Stars, Jagr has two goals and nine points in 11 games. He skated 14:30 in Boston's 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday -- his lowest time-on-ice since the trade.


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Posted On Saturday, 04.27.2013 / 11:43 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Holtby starts as Capitals seek momentum

ARLINGTON, Va. – Having already clinched the Southeast Division and No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, the goal for the Washington Capitals is to play a clean hockey game against the Boston Bruins on Saturday and build momentum heading into the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Goaltender Braden Holtby will start Washington’s regular-season finale after serving as Michal Neuvirth’s backup in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators on Thursday.

"I talked to him, actually, about which game he would rather have, and in terms of rest, what's too much rest, how recent do you want to play," coach Adam Oates said. "I don't think there's any perfect formula. I don't think anybody's ever perfected that, but it makes sense to him to play [against Boston] and if we [open the playoffs] Tuesday or Wednesday, it's kind of a good rhythm because we've almost played every other day this year. It's been that kind of season."

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Posted On Thursday, 04.25.2013 / 4:02 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Senators wowed by speed of Karlsson's return

WASHINGTON -- As the Ottawa Senators prepared Thursday to welcome Erik Karlsson back to the lineup for their game against the Washington Capitals, captain Daniel Alfredsson couldn't help but admire his 22-year-old teammate.

Karlsson has not played since Feb. 13, when the defenseman sustained a 70-percent tear to the Achilles tendon in his left leg during a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Karlsson underwent surgery the next day and was expected to miss four to six months. Instead, the reigning Norris Trophy winner will return exactly 10 weeks after the operation.

"He said the day after it happened, he had surgery, he said two months," Alfredsson said of Karlsson's timetable. "And we knew that was not possible. We never thought he would be able to come back unless we went really far in the playoffs. But he's been positive the whole time through and been encouraged by what he's been able to do and worked hard to get here. It's great to see."

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Posted On Thursday, 04.25.2013 / 12:41 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Karlsson returns as Senators try to snap mini-slide

WASHINGTON – Defenseman Erik Karlsson will return to the Ottawa Senators lineup Thursday against the Washington Capitals.

The reigning Norris Trophy winner has not played since Feb. 13 when his Achilles tendon was sliced in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Karlsson underwent surgery Feb. 14 and was expected to miss four to six months. Instead, the 22-year-old will return exactly 10 weeks after the operation.

The Senators could clinch a second straight Stanley Cup Playoff berth as early as Thursday night with a win against the Capitals or a Winnipeg Jets’ regulation loss against the Montreal Canadiens.

Ottawa has lost two straight games since beating the Capitals 3-1 a week ago at ScotiaBank Place. The Senators have since been outscored 7-2 in back-to-back defeats by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Capitals’ loss in Ottawa last Thursday remains the club’s only blemish in a 10-1-0 month of April. Washington clinched the Southeast Division title and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 5-3 win Tuesday against Winnipeg.

Here is Ottawa’s projected lineup for Thursday night:

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Posted On Thursday, 04.25.2013 / 11:10 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Neuvirth starting in net for Capitals

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Michal Neuvirth will make a rare start at Verizon Center on Thursday when the Washington Capitals host the Ottawa Senators (7 p.m. ET, TSN).

Neuvirth will make just his fifth start at home Thursday, and his second since Feb. 5.

Here is the rest of Washington's projected lineup:

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Posted On Tuesday, 04.16.2013 / 10:25 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Projected lineup for Capitals vs. Maple Leafs

The Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals seek a season-high eighth straight win when they play the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night at Verizon Center.

The Maple Leafs have won two straight games and seven of nine to pull within four points of the Northeast Division-leading Montreal Canadiens with six games remaining.

The Capitals have not played since a 6-5 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday The Maple Leafs are coming off a 2-0 win Monday against the New Jersey Devils.

Here is Washington's projected lineup for Tuesday:

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Posted On Thursday, 04.11.2013 / 10:26 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Projected lineups for Capitals, Hurricanes

The Washington Capitals will attempt to at least maintain -- and perhaps add to -- their slim lead atop the Southeast Division when they host the reeling Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night at Verizon Center.

The Capitals begin play Thursday two points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets, who are hosting the Florida Panthers. Forwards Joel Ward, Martin Erat and Brooks Laich all remain out with injuries.

Here are the projected lineups for the Capitals and Hurricanes:

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Posted On Thursday, 04.04.2013 / 11:23 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Erat to make Capitals debut with familiar face

Martin Erat will make his Washington Capitals debut Thursday when his new team faces the New York Islanders.

However, he'll have a familiar face near him as it appears Erat will play on a line with Joel Ward. The two were teammates with the Nashville Predators.

In addition, Eric Fehr will return to the lineup for the Capitals after missing four games with an upper-body injury.

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Posted On Tuesday, 03.12.2013 / 2:12 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Johansson moved up to Capitals' top line

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Marcus Johansson is the latest to play as the top-line left wing after returning to the lineup in a 4-1 loss Sunday against the New York Rangers.

Prior to that, Johansson missed 12 games with a concussion while Jason Chimera, Wojtek Wolski and Matt Hendricks all saw time on the top unit.

"I really saw some energy and skating and being a bit of a hound on the puck and making good decisions," Capitals coach Adam Oates said of Johansson's game Sunday. "Maybe that hit in training camp [in which he collided with Ovechkin in a scrimmage] did hurt him where he was trying to fight through it and didn't have the pace I saw the other night. I really thought he was solid."

In his first nine games this season, Johansson was limited to one goal and a team-worst minus-7 rating. In his return Sunday, the 22-year-old had an assist and saw time on both special teams units.

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Posted On Tuesday, 03.12.2013 / 2:07 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Capitals' Laich feeling better physically, mentally

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals welcomed a familiar face back to practice Tuesday when injured forward Brooks Laich skated with his teammates for the first time since Feb. 16.

Laich has missed the entire season with a strained groin muscle suffered in Switzerland during the lockout. There still is no time frame for his return.

"It's been a lot of work," Laich said ahead of the Capitals' game Tuesday against the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes. "It's been the hardest thing I've ever gone through. Physically it's a lot of work, but mentally probably even more draining. But hopefully it's all for good. We have a great medical staff that's really helped me and pushed me in the right direction. Hopefully I'll be back out soon."

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Posted On Saturday, 02.09.2013 / 12:42 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Johansson to be scratched again for Capitals

ARLINGTON, Va. – Marcus Johansson is expected to be a healthy scratch Saturday night for the third time this season when the Washington Capitals play host to the Florida Panthers at Verizon Center.

The Capitals’ first-round selection in the 2009 NHL Draft (No. 24) has one goal and a team-worst minus-7 rating in nine games this season.

“I think his confidence might be one of the problems with his play,” said Capitals coach Adam Oates, who had high hopes for Johansson heading into the season.

Johansson spent the entire six-day training camp on Washington’s No. 1 line and began the season playing with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.

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Posted On Saturday, 02.09.2013 / 11:57 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Holtby starts in net for struggling Capitals

ARLINGTON, Va. – One day after Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee singled out discipline and goaltending as two areas that must improve, Braden Holtby will start for the Capitals tonight against the Florida Panthers.

Holtby’s 4.74 goals-against average is last in the NHL among goalies with at least five appearances.

"Obviously everyone in here knows they can be better," Holtby said of the 2-8-1 Capitals. "But that’s in the past, it’s all in the past now. We have to move forward. Looking at how we’ve played in the past isn’t going to help us at this point. We’ve dwelled on that long enough to dig us into this hole, so right now our focus is on the next game, doing little things that we need to, treat it as just another hockey game and have patience."

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Posted On Thursday, 01.24.2013 / 2:57 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Ovechkin stays at right wing ... for now

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals will have a different look tonight against the Montreal Canadiens, as Wojtek Wolski joins Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top line.

Wolski is expected to play on his natural side at left wing, meaning Ovechkin will continue to play on the right side. Ovechkin has played left wing throughout his NHL career, but coach Adam Oates moved Ovechkin to the right side in training camp and he's played there in the first two games of the season.

"I think when you play all the time on the left side, and you try right away on the right side, you just have to realize it and give it some time," said Ovechkin, who has been held to one assist through two games.

"If I score one goal or two goals, like, I'm going to feel much more comfortable and it's going to take pressure off of my shoulders."

Oates explained in training camp that the decision to move Ovechkin to the right side -- not unlike what the New Jersey Devils did last year with Ilya Kovalchuk -- was in an effort to expand his game and limit his increasingly predictable tendencies from the left side.

"We're going to use him every way we can," Oates said before the start of the season. "He's a force in this League, he's very important to us and I want to make sure that he knows that I'm going to do my best to let him be successful."

For years, Ovechkin made a living by gaining an opponent's blue line, cutting to the middle and wiring a shot from atop the left faceoff circle (often while using a defenseman as a screen).

In recent seasons though, opponents caught on and adjusted and defended Ovechkin accordingly.

"It's a different view now," Canadiens defenseman Josh Georges said of Ovechkin's new position. "He's coming down now from his strong side. When he plays on the left side he does a good job of getting to the middle of the ice and getting that shot… He can kind of shoot it from any position and it's something that we have to be aware of. But now that he's coming down on the other side, he's a fast skater, a strong guy and we have to make sure that we're in his face no matter what.

"We'll take it in stride. Good players find open ice; they find the room no matter what side of the ice they're on. So we're going to have to rely on a five-man unit to play against him and his line."

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Posted On Thursday, 01.24.2013 / 1:37 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Wolski gets prime opportunity for Capitals

WASHINGTON -- In the six months since Wojtek Wolski signed with the Washington Capitals, the 26-year-old has repeatedly said he is simply looking for a chance to prove his doubters wrong.

The Capitals are Wolski's fifth team in less than three years, and he ended his time with the Florida Panthers last spring as a healthy scratch for Games 3-7 of their first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the New Jersey Devils.

Through two games with the Capitals, though, Wolski has seen top-six minutes and power-play time, and tonight against the Montreal Canadiens he is expected to play alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on Washington's No. 1 line.

"I'm happy to play wherever I'm going to get ice time and I'm going to get a good opportunity," Wolski said.

"I've been working hard. I've been moving my feet. I'm getting up in the play and creating opportunities, turnovers. I think that's going to give Nicky and Ovi an opportunity to get some scoring chances."

Wolski started the season on Washington's second line with Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer. The unit combined for two goals and five points through two games, including a Wolski tally in a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But with Marcus Johansson struggling alongside Backstrom and Ovechkin on the No. 1 unit, lineup changes were expected.

"Just looking for a little spark, a little something," coach Adam Oates said. "I thought in the third [period against the Winnipeg Jets], I put [Wolski] up there and I thought that they had a little bit of chemistry, so hopefully we'll keep it going for tonight."

Wolski's addition to the top line should provide "more creativity," according to Ovechkin.

"You know, he's a skilled guy who can control the puck. Again, it's -- find out something new, maybe. We'll see how it works."

Ovechkin is still searching for his first goal of the season, and he enters tonight's game against the Montreal Canadiens with one assist and eight shots on goal in two games.

With Wolski expected to see more opportunity on Washington's top line, Johansson's early season struggles have landed him on the Caps' fourth line, where he will play with Mathieu Perreault and Joey Crabb.

Johansson is a team-worst minus-3 and was benched in the third period of Tuesday's 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets for all but 50 seconds.

"He's a young kid, he's still learning the game, he's a natural center and we have playing the wing so I'm sure that some of his reads and decisions are based on that," Oates said of the Capitals' first-round pick (No. 20) from the 2009 NHL Draft.

"So we just showed him a lot of video yesterday and we moved him today with [Perreault] to see if they can get a little spark and help him out."

The Capitals have been held to three even-strength goals in their first two games and have played with the lead for a total of 2 minutes, 32 seconds. They are 0-2-0 for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

"They lost their first two games, you know they're going to be fired up," Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges said.

"They're at home, so you know that they're going to throw everything at us. We have to expect their best, we have to expect that they're going to come out full of [grit] and that they're going to do everything they can to win, so we have to come out and be ready to win."

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Posted On Thursday, 01.24.2013 / 12:18 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - 2012-2013 At the Rink blog

Wolski to top line, Neuvirth to start for Caps

WASHINGTON – The Washington Capitals will have a different look Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens, with Michal Neuvirth making his season debut and Wojtek Wolski expected to see time on Washington’s No.1 line.

The Capitals are 0-2-0 for the first time since Oct. 1996.

“I feel cold, but, you know, this is job I picked and I’ve got to handle it,” said Neuvirth, who dressed as Braden Holtby’s backup for the first two games this season.

“I’m trying to stay positive and happy. I felt good during practice… and I’m ready to go.”

Neuvirth played in 24 games for HC Sparta Praha in the Czech Republic this fall, and appeared in 38 games for the Capitals last season. He has a 4-0-1 lifetime record against Montreal with a .939 save percentage, 1.82 goals-against-average and a shutout.

“Obviously I’ve just coached against him and I know that’s a very good goalie,” Oates said after Thursday’s morning skate. “I’ll like seeing him wearing my sweater.”

Here are the projected lineups for the Capitals and Canadiens:

CAPITALS

Wojtek WolskiNicklas BackstromAlex Ovechkin

Matt HendricksMike RibeiroTroy Brouwer

Jason ChimeraJay BeagleJoel Ward

Marcus JohanssonMathieu PerreaultJoey Crabb

Karl AlznerJohn Carlson

Tom PotiMike Green

Roman HamrlikTomas Kundratek

Michal Neuvirth

Braden Holtby

CANADIENS

Max PaciorettyDavid DesharnaisErik Cole

Rene BourqueTomas PlekanecBrian Gionta

Brandon PrustAlex GalchenyukBrendan Gallagher

Travis MoenRyan WhiteColby Armstrong

Andrei MarkovAlexei Emelin

Josh Gorges – Tomas Kaberle

Francis BouillonRaphael Diaz

Carey Price

Peter Budaj

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Posted On Wednesday, 05.09.2012 / 1:12 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Ovechkin: 'We just can't go home right now'

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin will all skate in their 50th career playoff games when the Washington Capitals host the New York Rangers Wednesday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (7:30 p.m, ET, NBCSN, CBC).

In their first 49 playoff games, all with Washington and all since 2008, Ovechkin, Laich and Semin have faced elimination in a Game 6 three times. The Caps forced a Game 7 in all three instances.

They have no choice but to make it 4-for-4 if they hope to extend their 2012 postseason as they trail the Rangers 3-2 with Game 6 at Verizon Center.

"You don't want the season to start over for next year," Ovechkin said. "And you don't want season be ended tonight. It's going to be do-or-die. Right now everybody knows and everybody understands we just can't go home right now.

"I don't think we deserve to end the season. Everybody knows, I think, we [have a] good hockey club. We beat the Stanley Cup champion in Game 7 at home. … Last game they got a little luck… Tonight is going to be different game and tonight is going to be a much different atmosphere."

The Capitals will look to take advantage of the home crowd just as they did at the start of Game 4 when they outshot the Rangers 14-3 in the first period and led 1-0 at the first intermission.

The Rangers replied with a strong start of their own in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden, outshooting the Caps 17-4 in the opening 20 minutes and grabbing a 1-0 lead.

Washington is 6-1 in the playoffs when scoring first; 0-5 when allowing the first goal.

"Tonight being down a game, we’re going to be desperate and we're going to throw everything at them," Troy Brouwer said. "We've played good in the games when we've been down in the series, and tonight especially being at home, we should have a lot of jump, we should have a lot of excitement in the building and we should be able to come out hard."

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Posted On Wednesday, 05.09.2012 / 12:00 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Beagle doesn't practice, but Capitals say he'll play

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals have long described Jay Beagle as a teammate who treats every practice like a Game 7.

But with the Capitals looking to extend their Eastern Conference Semifinal series to a decisive seventh game, Beagle was the lone absentee from Washington's morning skate ahead of Game 6 Wednesday against the New York Rangers (7:30 p.m., ET, NBCSN, CBC).

"He's fine," coach Dale Hunter said of his third line center. "I'm just resting his legs… He's fine. He's going to play."

Beagle blocked a shot from Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman early in the second period of Game 5 that got a piece of his leg. Beagle was limping after the blocked shot and played under 15 minutes for just the third time in his last 14 games.

"He's been big for us," Troy Brouwer said. "He's been great on the penalty kill, he's our only right-handed centerman and he's taken a lot of draws and done real well in that aspect. He does a great job out there, he kind of gets overlooked on this team, but he deserves a lot of credit for how he's played so far in the playoffs."

Added Karl Alzner: "Jay's been logging tons of minutes and he's been doing all the key things that have been helping us succeed, the little areas that a lot of times go unnoticed but are extremely important. Regardless of what happens, somebody else has a chance to do it now if he's not in the lineup."

While Hunter dismissed the possibility of Beagle missing Game 6, it appears that a contingency plan may be in place.

Veteran Jeff Halpern came off the ice Wednesday morning at the same time as the rest of the Caps' regulars instead of staying out for extra work with the healthy scratches.

Halpern has been a healthy scratch in 19 straight games dating back to the regular-season and in 24 of Washington's last 27 games.

The 36-year-old declined to comment on his status for tonight. If Beagle cannot play, Halpern could serve as the Caps' only right-handed center. Halpern led the Caps and was fifth in the League with a 58.3 faceoff percentage during the regular-season.

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Posted On Tuesday, 05.08.2012 / 4:12 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Third period full of missed opportunities for Caps

ARLINGTON, Va. -- If the Washington Capitals fall to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, players and management alike will likely spend the summer wondering how things could have been different had they held on to their 2-1 lead in the final seconds of Game 5.

Beginning with a double-minor high-sticking penalty against Joel Ward with 22 seconds remaining in regulation, followed by Brad Richards' tying-goal with 6.6 seconds to play and Marc Staal's game-winning tally 95 seconds into overtime, the Caps potentially saw their season fall by the wayside in a stunning 3-2 OT loss.

While it is hard to ignore how Game 5 ended and the series of events that led to its conclusion, the Capitals acknowledged Tuesday that their margin of error in the final minute of regulation should never have been so thin.
From the time John Carlson's power-play goal gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead at 4:20 of the third period, the Caps had ample opportunity to double their lead.

Less than three minutes after Carlson's goal, Nicklas Backstrom broke free from Dan Girardi and went one-on-one against Henrik Lundqvist. Backstrom's backhand attempt grazed off of Lundqvist's shoulder and hit the crossbar.

"I should have scored," Backstrom said Tuesday. "It would have been a different game."

The same can be said if Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin had converted on a two-on-one with seven minutes to play in regulation. Instead, Girardi got a stick in the way of Semin's pass to Ovechkin, and a shot on goal was never even attempted.

Ditto for a Capitals' three-on-one with just over five minutes to play when the trio of Ovechkin, Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson failed to get a shot on goal. This time it was Staal who got a piece of Laich's intended pass to Ovechkin as Washington gained the blue line.

"We should've executed better," said Johansson, who has gone seven games without a point and is last among Washington forwards with a minus-6 rating in the playoffs.

"[Backstrom's chance] is just bad luck -- it hits the crossbar. But we had a couple two-on-ones and three-on-ones where we should've scored and we didn't even get a shot on net. That's not good enough. We have enough skill and good hockey players to do something better with that. That's something we have to get better at."

The Rangers outshot the Capitals 38-18 in Game 5, and just as the Capitals are left to wonder what could have been had they converted their third period scoring chances, New York likely would have been wondering the same had Washington held on for a 2-1 win.

"They played really well early on, but as the game wore on I thought we got better," Laich said. "They had more shots, but we might have had the better scoring chances. Nicky [hitting the crossbar] and Alex, and Alex had a two-on-one, and we had a three-on-one which I made a bad play on. So we're going to commit to defense again and try and get the offense, and when we do get those chances we'll try to capitalize on it."

"We need to bear down," said Mike Green, who played a team-high 24:47 in Game 5. "When we get opportunities to score, we've got to put it in the net. I think that would have been the difference in the game… It's just [about] us making the right play. Three-on-one, you should be able to get a shot at least. Their D-men made great plays, but we've got to do better."

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Posted On Tuesday, 05.08.2012 / 3:08 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Caps used to bouncing back from tough OT defeats

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Before falling in overtime in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the New York Rangers, the Washington Capitals had already dropped three games in OT in this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Following each defeat, though, the Caps have shown the type of resiliency they admit was often missing in playoffs past.

There was a series-opening 1-0 OT loss in Round 1 against the Boston Bruins. The Caps responded with a double overtime win of their own in Game 2.

There was a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 6 against the Bruins, in which the Caps blew an opportunity to eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champions on home ice. The Caps responded with an overtime win in Boston in Game 7.

Then there was a 2-1 triple overtime loss against the Rangers in Game 3 of their second-round series, in which Washington came up short in the third-longest game in franchise history. The Caps responded with a home win in Game 4 three days later.

While Washington's first three OT losses this postseason were all disheartening in their own right, Monday's 3-2 loss in New York may top them all.

The Caps held a 2-1 lead in the final minute of Game 5 before a double-minor high-sticking penalty against Joel Ward sent the Rangers to the power play. New York's Brad Richards tied the game with 6.6 seconds remaining in regulation, while Marc Staal netted the game-winning-goal just 95 seconds into OT.

"We were close, but we can't think that way," said defenseman John Carlson, who was on the ice for both the game-tying and winning goals. "We're all still positive here. We know that in the last series we missed an opportunity in Game 6 to close it out at home. [Monday] we missed an opportunity to go up in the series 3-2. But all we're worried about right now is winning [Wednesday]."

The Capitals met at their Northern Virginia practice facility Tuesday to watch video, but did not skate. Of the six players made available to the media, all six echoed the sentiments of coach Dale Hunter and said of the Game 5 loss that "stuff happens," and "that’s hockey."

No matter when or how they have lost in these playoffs, the Capitals have been quick to brush off any disappointment, and dating back to the regular season they have not lost back-to-back games since March 22-23.

"I think we control our emotions a little better," said forward Brooks Laich who has played in all 49 of Washington's playoff games since 2008.

"Even when we win, we're not bouncing off the ceiling -- it's more of a business atmosphere. And when we lose, we know that we can bounce back. We have a very good hockey team, so we never get too high, we never get too low, we just stay pretty composed. A lot of that comes from Dale … he's not panicking."

Added Hunter: "We have to [respond]. It's hockey. The guys are ready to battle [in Game 6] and that's what it's all about when you play in the Stanley Cup  playoffs. ... The guys are resilient; they'll bounce back and have a great game."

Now the Capitals have no choice but to come back from their latest OT setback. The Caps must beat New York in Game 6 on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., ET, NBCSN, CBC) to extend the series. Game 7 would be Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

"We've just got to put it behind us and come out harder," said Nicklas Backstrom who added that this latest OT loss may be tougher than the triple OT loss in Game 3.

"I think so, but you've just got to forget about it. It's bad luck, I think, it's just six seconds left and the puck was bouncing all over the place. I guess that happens in hockey sometimes, and you've just got to bounce back."
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Posted On Sunday, 05.06.2012 / 3:10 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Caps doing their best to block shots

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals beat the New York Rangers at their own game Saturday, blocking 26 New York shots, while having just seven of their own blocked by the Rangers.

The Caps beat the Rangers 3-2 to even their Eastern Conference Semifinal series at two games apiece. Game 5 is Monday at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m., ET, NBCSN, CBC).

"We know that they can block shots very well and they create offense from blocking it too," Caps coach Dale Hunter said Sunday. "When we get it blocked, they go down the other way on an odd-man rush. So we say that you just have to miss the first guy and get it by them, and if you miss the net so be it as long as it doesn't get blocked."

In Game 4 the Caps kept the Rangers from getting in the shooting lanes by creating space in the offensive zone with plenty of puck movement. Specifically, the Capitals looked to their blue liners.

"They like to play tight in their D-zone," Troy Brouwer said, "their forwards collapse a little bit and so our D-men have a little bit more time at the points. So if we can get pucks back to the point and go D-to-D and stretch them out a little bit, it gives our D-men a better lane to the net. If we have nothing, we can just throw it down behind the net and try to get a little more room on the cycle."

The Capitals acknowledge that they have relied on their cycle game and their play below the goal line more against the Rangers than they did in the first round against the Boston Bruins.

Washington's first two goals in Saturday's Game 4 win -- tallies from Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom -- both came from sustained offensive zone pressure that resulted in the Rangers collapsing down low.

Ovechkin opened the scoring seconds after Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson battled for possession in the corner with Ryan Callahan and Chris Kreider. Kreider eventually turned the puck over to Ovechkin who made it 1-0 Washington. 

"Callahan was in the corner, Kreider was right down in the pile, both D-men were in the pile, and I think that [Brian] Boyle was the lone guy in the slot," Brouwer said. "That leaves a lot of room in the slot. So it was a timely turnover that the guys caused and Ovi just happened to be in a good spot."

While the Caps' combination of puck movement from their defensemen and the play of their forwards below the faceoff circles kept the Rangers from blocking more than seven shots, the Capitals themselves also got in the way of 26 shots from New York.

Jeff Schultz led the Caps with nine blocked shots, as Washington passed New York for the overall team lead in blocked shots this post-season (244-232).
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Posted On Sunday, 05.06.2012 / 3:05 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Hunter sticking with same lineup for Game 5

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Not looking to change a winning formula, Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter is expected to go with the same lineup in Game 5 against the New York Rangers that produced Saturday's 3-2 win.

The Eastern Conference Semifinal series is even at two games apiece with Game 5 Monday at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m., ET, NBCSN, CBC).

When the series returned to Washington for Game 3 last Wednesday, Hunter had Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom skate on the same line for the first time this postseason. While Hunter was satisfied with their production, the experiment was short-lived.

In Game 4, Brooks Laich returned to Hunter's No.1 line alongside Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson, while Backstrom was back on the second line with Jason Chimera and Alexander Semin. The trios are expected to stay the same for Game 5.

"Brooksie and Ovi have been working pretty well together," Hunter explained. "I put Nicky there and they had some good scoring chances, but I thought that Nicky, [Chimera] and Semin, three games ago had a good game so I thought I'd go back to them."

Both lines came through offensively in Game 4 as sustained pressure from Laich and Johansson led to Ovechkin's fourth goal of the playoffs, while Chimera found Backstrom open in the slot in the second period for his second goal of the postseason. Backstrom's tally snapped a personal seven-game goalless drought.

"Playing with [Backstrom], it felt like he was back to his old self, cycling the puck down low and getting some chances," Chimera said. "With any luck, he could have had three or four goals [Saturday]. I think that was his best game since returning [from a 40-game absence March 31]. He needs that. He needs some confidence. That's a game that could spur us on and ultimately help us out, too."

While Backstrom continues to find his game, his countryman Marcus Johansson remains on the Capitals' No.1 line despite a six-game pointless streak. Johansson is also last among Washington forwards with a minus-five rating in 11 playoff games.
Below are the Capitals lines from Sunday's practice prior to the team's flight to New York.

CAPITALS

Alex OvechkinBrooks LaichMarcus Johansson
Jason ChimeraNicklas BackstromAlexander Semin
Matt HendricksJay BeagleTroy Brouwer
Mike Knuble- Keith AucoinJoel Ward
Mathieu PerreaultJeff HalpernMattias Sjogren

Karl AlznerJohn Carlson
Roman HamrlikMike Green
Jeff SchultzDennis Wideman
John ErskineDmitry Orlov

Braden Holtby
Michal Neuvirth
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Posted On Thursday, 05.03.2012 / 3:05 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

'Olie the goalie' understands pain of marathon OT loss

ARLINGTON, Va. -- If anybody can relate to how Braden Holtby felt after allowing the game-winning goal in triple overtime of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, it may be Olaf Kolzig.

The Washington Capitals associate goaltending coach was watching from the press box when New York Rangers forward Marian Gaborik beat Holtby at 14:41 of the sixth period to give the Rangers a 2-1 Game 3 win, and a 2-1 series lead.

It was the longest game ever played at Verizon Center, passing Game 6 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, when Martin St. Louis beat Kolzig at 4:03 of the third OT to give the Tampa Bay Lightning a 2-1 win and eliminate the Caps from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"I haven't been on the winning end of one of those," Kolzig said, "so I don't know how it feels after you win one, but I know it's pretty deflating after you lose."

The 22-year-old Holtby made a career-high 47 saves in his first ever triple-overtime game at any level and Kolzig's message is simple as the rookies looks to rebound in Game 4 Saturday.

"Just continue to play the same way," the Caps' all-time wins leader said. "That's all you can say. You're going to have games like that. You're going to have games where your team bails you out. It's just keeping your emotions in check and playing with a steady level."

Kolzig was also on the losing end of the longest game in team history, when the Caps fell 3-2 in quadruple overtime in Game 4 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"We lost to Pittsburgh in four overtimes, and I think it was like 50 seconds from going to a fifth overtime," Kolzig recalled. "Petr Nedved [scored]. I still have no idea how the puck found its way in the net. You watch the replay and there's people crossing in front of each other and it found its way in the net."

The 1996 Capitals went on to lose their next two games after the quadruple-OT loss and were eliminated from the playoffs four days later.

The 2012 Caps will look to write a different script and may benefit from having two days off between Games 3 and 4 as opposed to the customary one day between games.

"The emotions you get out of [Game 3], both ways, won't be as significant as if we were playing [Friday]," Kolzig said. "Their high will come down a little bit, our low will come up a little bit, and both teams will be re-energized and rested. It's fortunate that we've got the two days in between."

With the extra day at his disposal, Hunter encouraged his team to stay away from the team's practice facility Thursday -- "no video, no nothing," he said -- with the exception of players in need of physical treatment.

"You're pretty drained after," Hunter said of the physical and mental toll a long game can take.

Like Kolzig, Hunter also played in the longest game in franchise history, collecting an assist, five shots and two penalty minutes in the four-OT loss to Pittsburgh in 1996.

"A long game like this is [tiring]," Hunter said, "but you remember [those] games when you get my age, how much fun it was playing triple overtime, what a battle it was and the sacrifices you made. You always have good memories, win or lose. It's always the battle. And the guys battled [in Game 3 Wednesday]."

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Posted On Thursday, 05.03.2012 / 1:44 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Capitals face another test of their mental toughness

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Since he was hired to coach the Washington Capitals in late November, former captain Dale Hunter has worked on improving his team's mental toughness.

The fruits of his labor were on display during a late-season playoff push which saw the Capitals win four of their last five games, and again during a seven-game first-round series win against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

The next test comes Saturday in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals when the Caps will look to rebound from Wednesday's triple overtime loss in Game 3 against the New York Rangers

"We had to play some tough hockey to get into the playoffs," Hunter said. "Playing playoff hockey you have to [be able to] bounce back and be tough during the game if something happens on the ice. You go down a goal, you just keep battling and good things will happen."

In Washington's case, the Caps have now gone down a game, as the third-longest game in franchise history leaves them in a 2-1 hole in the best-of-seven series.

But for those that have been around the organization since its streak of five-straight playoff appearances began in 2008, the sense is that this year's club is better equipped to overcome a potentially deflating loss than the teams of years past.

"There's no question," said associate goaltending coach Olaf Kolzig, who acknowledged that this year's team had no choice but to become stronger mentally down the stretch.

"The adversity that we faced this year as opposed to the last two years where we basically solidified a playoff spot in January and kind of cruised into the playoffs, this year we had to scratch and claw …

"Teams that battle right to the end, if you can stay healthy and physically you're there, then you're going to have the edge over teams that solidified a spot two months in advance, and I think that's what we're experiencing, so I don’t think that we're going to be as down as maybe some other teams would be after a game like [Wednesday]."

The Presidents' Trophy winning Capitals in 2010 proved fragile in the postseason when they became the first No. 1 seed to blow a 3-1 first-round series lead.

The highest scoring team during the regular-season managed just one goal in Games 5, 6 and 7 against Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens, and grew increasingly frustrated as the series went on.

Kolzig says that the blue-collar style that Hunter has instilled in this year's Capitals allows the team to stay more even-keeled. The Caps have proven to be a resilient bunch under Hunter and have gone 17 straight games without losing two straight, dating to March 23.

"I think the guys have finally bought into Dale's type of hockey and they're realizing what he's been trying to emphasize throughout the year is finally paying off now in the playoffs," Kolzig said. "This is why we've played the way did. The guys are rising to the occasion, the way they battled against Boston and to go into Boston and win three games out of four in that building including Game 7 -- that says a lot."
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Posted On Wednesday, 05.02.2012 / 1:18 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Capitals dealing with relentless Rangers forecheck

ARLINGTON, Va. -- In the first two games of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series, the Washington Capitals were quickly introduced to the New York Rangers' relentless forecheck.

"They buzzed us real good at the beginning of [Game 2]," Capitals forward Troy Brouwer said.

The consensus among Washington defensemen is that the Rangers are providing them with far less time and space than the Boston Bruins did in Round 1.

The Rangers are sending pucks deep, gaining the Washington blue line, and finishing their checks on whichever Capitals defenseman is first to retrieve the disc.

"I think that if we can get them slowed up through the neutral zone a little bit, and not let them come through with so much speed, that will give us a little bit more time," defenseman Dennis Wideman said. "Then we've just got to go back a little bit harder. When they're coming hard on you like that, you've got to move the puck quick. They're coming. That's the way it is in the playoffs."

The Rangers had 45 hits in Game 2, with 37 of them coming from forwards. Ryan Callahan (eight), Chris Kreider (seven) and Brian Boyle (six) led New York in hits, marking a significant change for the Capitals, who dealt with defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg as the heavy hitters in their first-round series against the Boston Bruins.

"Sometimes you have to maybe cheat a little bit to get back or find a different way to get to that puck first because they come with so much speed and they always finish that first check that you're going to get hit no matter what," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "I think you've got to make sure that you're not getting thrown off by those hits and you just absorb it and get back into the play. It's a good forechecking team. There's not a whole lot you can do."

Far too often in Games 1 and 2, the Capitals were pinned in their own zone for long stretches, unable to overcome New York's forecheck and their pinching defensemen. Caps coach Dale Hunter says that more is needed from his backchecking forwards.

"They're a forechecking team and their D pinch," Hunter said, "so we just have to move the puck quickly. The key to everything is their wingers being good on the boards and chipping pucks out."

Added Wideman: "You can move the puck real quick, or get it off the glass, you might be able to catch them in the middle sometimes. But they come back extremely hard as well. … As hard as they come, we know we can't really make that pass to the winger because their Ds are pinching a lot, so we've got to just get it out, get it on the neutral zone and just try to get it on the forecheck."
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Posted On Wednesday, 05.02.2012 / 10:17 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Ovechkin, Backstrom reunited on Caps' top line

ARLINGTON, Va. -- For the better part of the Bruce Boudreau era, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin were fixtures on the Washington Capitals' No. 1 line during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Through nine playoff games under coach Dale Hunter, Ovechkin and Backstrom have yet to start a game on the same unit, and their shifts together have been limited primarily to the power play.

But based on line rushes at the Caps’ morning skate Wednesday, it appears a reunion could be in store on Washington's No. 1 trio.

In preparation for Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the New York Rangers (7:30 p.m., ET, NBCSN, CBC), Backstrom skated with the No. 1 line Wednesday morning, flanked by Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson.

"We haven't [played together] much at all," Backstrom said of skating alongside Ovechkin since returning from a concussion March 31. "But we should know each other because we've played with each other for a long time [in previous seasons]. We've got to go out and do our job out there and make sure we get some chances and stuff, work hard and do all those little things right, too."

Ovechkin has two goals in his last five games, with Backstrom assisting on both -- the result of Backstrom winning a faceoff directly back to Ovechkin, who was able to beat Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist with shots from just inside the blue line.

Hunter said before Washington's first-round series against the Boston Bruins that he wanted more size alongside Ovechkin to help create space against Boston defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg.

Brooks Laich fit the bill in Round 1, but against the smaller and more mobile Rangers defense, Backstrom provides Hunter with a different look. Backstrom will be counted on to generate speed with the puck through the neutral zone and find Ovechkin for open looks.

"I think we have good chemistry," Ovechkin said, "but when I played with [Brooks Laich] it was a good time for me and for him, too, I think. But right now I'll start playing with [Backstrom] -- I don't know how it will go, if we're going to play a whole game or maybe just one period or maybe one shift, we'll see."

Backstrom (16:18) and Ovechkin (13:36) saw career-lows in playoff ice-time in Monday's 3-2 Game 2 win in New York, but both are likely to play more in Game 3. Hunter has made it a point to match lines, and will have the home-ice advantage of the last change in Games 3 and 4.

"I'm just going to try to get the puck to [Ovechkin]," Backstrom said. "Me and Marcus are passers on that line, we know he has a good shot and we've just got to make sure he's open and then we'll try to find him. We'll all three go hard to the net and try to get goals."

Added Ovechkin: "I think we have chemistry, it's not a secret. He can control the puck in the neutral zone and skate and find me in open spots. He's a top center in the League, I've played with him and it's nice."

Regardless of history, ice time or matchups, the Capitals need more from their skilled forwards. Four of Washington's last five even-strength goals have come from their third and fourth lines, while top-six forwards Laich, Backstrom, Johansson and Alexander Semin have all gone at least five games without a goal.

Still, Hunter downplayed the significance of the line changes during practice.

"I don't know if they're playing together," Hunter said. "It's one of those things where they do know each other, but [Laich] has been here a long time, too, so it's just one of those things -- I thought I'd try it in practice."

The Caps' third and fourth lines remain unchanged, as do all three defensive pairings.

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Marcus Johansson
Jason Chimera - Brooks Laich - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Jay Beagle - Troy Brouwer
Mike Knuble - Keith Aucoin - Joel Ward

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Roman Hamrlik - Mike Green
Jeff Schultz - Dennis Wideman

Braden Holtby
Michal Neuvirth
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Posted On Tuesday, 05.01.2012 / 3:50 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Capitals say winning, not ice time, the main concern

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Karl Alzner and his teammates were sitting in the players' lounge at the Washington Capitals' practice facility Tuesday morning watching the highlights and analysis on NHL Network.

When the subject turned to Alex Ovechkin's ice time during Washington's 3-2 Game 2 win Monday against the New York Rangers, Alzner and his teammates shook their heads.

"To be honest, it's not even something that we notice," Alzner said of individual playing times. "We don't go down the sheet at the end of the game and say, 'How much did Ovi play?' That's just not something that we do. Talking to some of the guys, we all keep saying the same thing: 'It's too bad that that's the topic of conversation after we just won a big game.'"

Ovechkin skated a career-playoff-low 13:36 as the Caps evened their Eastern Conference Semifinal series at a game apiece thanks in part to Ovechkin's third-period game-winning-goal. Nicklas Backstrom (16:18) and Alexander Semin (12:27) also saw career-lows in playoff ice-time.

"The reason why their ice time is down is because we were up," Troy Brouwer said of the Caps playing much of Game 2 with the lead. "If we were down a goal, their ice time would be way up. … We've got guys like [Jay] Beagle, [Jason] Chimera and [Matt Hendricks] that are looked at when we're leading in a game to maintain that lead, and Alex knows that and he has to accept that."

In 37 career playoff games under Bruce Boudreau, Ovechkin never played less than 19:42, but in nine playoff games under Dale Hunter, Ovechkin has skated 17:34 or less five times.

"If guys are getting upset about ice time and that's all you're worrying about, then you're off," Alzner said. "I've seen that happen to a lot of guys in the last seven years that I've been playing. It's pretty obvious. Everybody right now just doesn't care. Just go out there and play, work hard. Dale's going to reward you."

Hunter has made it a point to reward players regardless of name, salary or experience. Beagle has become the poster boy for Hunter's reward system and has emerged as Washington's shutdown third-line center.

The 26-year-old Beagle had never made an NHL roster out of training camp until this season, but in Game 2 Monday, he led all Washington forwards with 19:58 of ice-time.

"I think you, as a coach, you get more respect that way," Alzner said of Hunter's rewarding players. "You get people, overall, having a better attitude towards it all. … Sometimes the guys that are working extremely hard and aren't getting the minutes that they hope they're getting, they would get frustrated. I think when you reward whoever's going at that time or keeping it more even, collectively everybody's a little bit more happy."
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Posted On Tuesday, 05.01.2012 / 3:00 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Capitals want to match strong road play at Verizon

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Of the 16 teams that qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, none had fewer regular-season road wins than the Washington Capitals (16-21-4).

But in winning Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Monday night against the New York Rangers and evening the best-of-seven series at a game apiece, the Caps improved to 4-2 on the road this postseason.

As the series now shifts to Verizon Center for Games 3 and 4, the Caps will look to match that road success on their own sheet of ice, where they went 1-2 in Round 1.

"If you look at a lot of series, the road teams are winning a lot of games," Jason Chimera said. "You've got to take that road mentality and play simple. You can't be out there to impress fans. This is not the time of year to impress fans. It's the time of year to win games."

Road teams went 31-17 in Round 1 and are 3-4 so far in Round 2. The common theme when it comes to road succees, according to the Capitals, is sticking with a simple game plan. The challenge now is to bring that same mentality to Verizon Center.

"I know we're in front of the home crowd and they may want to see some flash and some dazzle," Troy Brouwer said, "but we have to keep our game the same as we were playing on the road because that’s what’s been successful for us -- be patient, defense first, capitalize on our opportunities and just play a solid game.”

Added Chimera: "For whatever reason, at home, you maybe over-extend yourself a little bit, try to do a little too much, and it leads to their chances. So we've got to take that road mentality at home and I think that'll help us."

Playoff success at Verizon Center has been hard to come by for the Capitals who have gone 11-13 since 2008 despite owning one of the best regular-season home records over that same stretch (133-48-24).

"It's really hard to put a finger on it," Mike Knuble said. "I don't know if home teams feel more pressure like we've got to perform -- I don't think we feel that, and I don't think our fans are expecting that from us."

Knuble also noted that with Capitals coach Dale Hunter constantly monitoring the on-ice matchups, and trying to keep Alex Ovechkin away from New York's defensive tandem of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, the home-ice advantage of having the last change could also be a boost.

"It should be even more beneficial because Dale can get the exact matchup that he wants when he feels necessary," Knuble said. "It's early enough in the whole playoff thing we can right the ship here at home and be a strong home team and match the strong play we've had on the road."

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Posted On Friday, 04.27.2012 / 6:39 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Holtby ready for the bright lights of New York

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Braden Holtby is ready for the bright lights of New York -- even though, he says, the lights aren't actually that bright after all.

"It's just a different color in there," Holtby said of playing in New York's Madison Square Garden. "It's almost a yellow."

Holtby spoke Friday about his limited experience playing in "The World's Most Famous Arena" as the Washington Capitals prepared for the opener of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the top-seeded New York Rangers.

The rookie goaltender started the Caps' regular-season finale in New York and turned aside 35 of 36 Rangers' shots in a 4-1 Washington win. The loss kept the Rangers from claiming the Presidents' Trophy.

Exactly three weeks after his first career start in New York, Holtby will start again for the Capitals in Game 1 on Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC). Holtby believes his having played in New York once before will make him feel more at ease with the surroundings.

"Especially with getting used to the lighting and whatnot and the different confines," he said. "It's not exactly your typical building. It was good to play in it… Darker buildings usually it impact the goalies more than usual."

Holtby says that he's confident that the arena lightning won't be a distraction and that he's not worried about the hostile environment that will greet the Caps in New York.

"It doesn't bother me that much," he said. "That's what everyone pays the money for is to have their two cents. It's good. It's not motivation, but it's definitely fun… If someone was playing the [Toronto Blue] Jays in the playoffs or something, I'd probably heckle them, too. That's what happens. It's hockey. It's fun. It adds to the intensity and it's a good thing."

Holtby became the third rookie goalie to backstop a team to a series win over the defending Stanley Cup champions when the Caps eliminated the Boston Bruins in seven games in Round 1. The 22-year-old stopped 31 shots in the Caps' 2-1 overtime win in Game 7, and he enters Round 2 with a 2.00 goals-against-average and .940 save percentage.

"I don't feel more comfortable or anything," Holtby said of his confidence now compared to before the Stanley Cup Playoffs began. "Not that I felt uncomfortable before. It's still the same. We're still a confident group in here. I still feel confident in my abilities that I can give this team a chance to win. It doesn't change much. It's still the Capitals vs. Rangers."

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Posted On Friday, 04.27.2012 / 3:36 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Hunter helped trio of Rangers reach NHL

ARLINGTON, Va. – Dan Girardi was an undrafted and over-aged junior defenseman playing for his third team in the Ontario Hockey League when he first got to know Dale Hunter.

At the time it may have been hard to imagine Girardi someday becoming an all-star defenseman in the NHL, but being traded to Hunter’s London Knights during the 2004-05 season proved to be a tremendous stepping stone in his development.

Five months after joining one of the best junior teams in Canadian Hockey League history, the 21-year-old found himself matched against a 17-year-old phenom and the projected No. 1 pick in the forthcoming NHL Draft, in a best-of-one national championship.
 
“We won the Memorial Cup with him and Marc Methot shutting down Sidney Crosby,” Hunter recalled Friday as his Washington Capitals prepared to face Girardi and the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

“I think that really jumpstarted my career,” Girardi said earlier this season of his experience in London. “Teams want guys that know how to win and can win those big championships even in a junior league. I think [Hunter] trading for me from Guelph was a big point in my career… Obviously it helped open some doors with the Rangers and now I’m here.”

Nearly seven years later, Girardi played in his first career NHL All-Star Game, and finished fourth in the NHL in average ice-time (26:14 per game) and fifth in blocked shots (185).

Girardi has become one of the premier shutdown defensemen in the League and will likely be entrusted with containing Alex Ovechkin and Washington’s No.1 line when their series begins Saturday in New York (3:00, ET, NBC).

 “We knew when we got him [in a trade from the Guelph Storm] that he was a great defensive player,” Hunter said. “He was never drafted and he played as an over-aged [player] so it’s a credit to a young man that’s a battler, which every coach likes.”

In addition to Girardi, his New York teammates Brandon Prust (2002-05) and Michael Del Zotto (2009) also played for Hunter in London.
 
“A heart and soul kind of guy,” Hunter said of Prust. “He’s a battler too, another guy that was a walk-on to our team. He’s one of these kids that will battle and play hard. You see him blocking shots and he’s a special player.”

Prust played three seasons for Hunter, collecting 41 goals, 111 points and 537 penalty minutes in 177 OHL games.

“He said to me one time when I was going to sit him out when he first came to me -- we were in Windsor -- and he said: “Play me coach and you’ll never take me out.” I played him and I never took him out.

“It’s good to see from him that’s doing so well. Hopefully not against us, but through his career so far.”

Del Zotto spent less time in London than either Girardi or Prust, having been dealt to the Knights in a 2009 deadline deal along with John Tavares.

But in 42 regular and post-season games with the Knights, Del Zotto recorded nine goals and 49 points and teamed up with Capitals defenseman John Carlson to form London’s No. 1 defensive pairing.

“It was awesome,” Del Zotto said earlier this season of his experience playing for Hunter. “They treat their players like pros and Dale has been through the ranks, he’s played and so he understands how to treat the players. He was great for me.”

Added Hunter: “[Del Zotto] was the same type of D [in junior]. He jumps up in every play, he’s involved, he’s a power-play guy and he hits. He’s an aggressive guy. You know his offense, but you’ll see when he gets big hits out there that we’ll have to be ready for it. He’s had a good career so far.”

It’s clear that Girardi, Prust and Del Zotto have all enjoyed NHL success playing the same types of games that got them noticed in London. Similarly, according to former players like Del Zotto, it doesn’t like Hunter has changed much either.
 
“If you’re not playing well and you’re one of the big guys,” Del Zotto said, “He’s not afraid to come after you and I think that’s pretty important. You can’t just let guys roam around and do whatever they want. They have to buy into the structure and buy into the team and he’s not afraid to put his foot down.”
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Posted On Friday, 04.27.2012 / 12:51 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Rangers vs. Capitals series blog

Ward receives standing ovation at Caps practice

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward took the ice at practice Friday morning and was met with a standing ovation from about 100 fans in attendance, as well stick-taps from his teammates.

Ward’s game-winning goal in overtime of Game 7 Wednesday against the Boston Bruins sent the Caps to the Eastern Conference Semifinals where they will face the New York Rangers beginning Saturday (3:00 p.m., ET, NBC).

The biggest goal of Ward’s career, however, was partially overshadowed by racial slurs that were posted Wednesday night on social networking websites including Twitter.

Ward told a Washington radio station Friday that “words don’t hurt me,” and said he was disappointed that the online comments have kept his teammates from receiving attention for the series. Ward singled out goalie Braden Holtby, who was brilliant throughout the series and became just the third rookie goalie in the history of the League to eliminate the defending champions.

"There's been a lot of support from everybody, especially my teammates and then the whole organization and even the opposition and the Bruins and some of their fans," Ward said after practice. "It's been overwhelming. A lot's been going on. I'm just trying to embrace it as best I can."

Ward also said Friday morning that he received a congratulatory and supportive text message from Boston Bruins forward Rich Peverley.
 
NOTES: The Capitals practiced Friday with the lines and defensive pairings listed below.

Alex OvechkinBrooks LaichTroy Brouwer
Marcus Johansson - Nicklas BackstromAlexander Semin
Matt HendricksJay BeagleJason Chimera
Mike KnubleKeith AucoinJoel Ward
Mattias SjogrenJeff HalpernMathieu Perreault
 
Karl AlznerJohn Carlson
Roman HamrlikMike Green
Jeff SchultzDennis Wideman
John Erskine - Dmitry Orlov
 
Braden Holtby
Michal Neuvirth
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Posted On Wednesday, 04.25.2012 / 1:02 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Bruins vs. Capitals series blog

Game 7 could be last for Caps' Knuble

ARLINGTON, Va. – It remains to be seen whether Washington Capitals forward Mike Knuble will return to the NHL for a 17th season of professional hockey. Knuble becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1- three days before he turns 40 -- and he's coming off his least productive season since the 2001-02 campaign.

Mike Knuble
Right Wing - WSH
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 1
SOG: 1 | +/-: 1
After eight straight 20-goal seasons, Knuble was held to six goals and 18 points in 72 games this season. He also missed 10 games as a healthy scratch and finished with a career-worst minus-15 rating.

Knuble is expected to skate on Washington's fourth line Wednesday when the Capitals face the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series (7:30 p.m., ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS). Game 7 will in fact be Game 1,098 in Knuble's career (regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoffs combined). Should the Bruins win, it may also be his last.
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Posted On Tuesday, 04.24.2012 / 5:33 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Bruins vs. Capitals series blog

Hunter enjoys 'one game takes all' situation

ARLINGTON, Va. -- It has been 24 years since Dale Hunter scored one of the biggest goals in Washington Capitals history -- a Game 7 overtime winner against the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1988 Patrick Division Semifinals.

The win against the Flyers came in the first of four Game 7s Hunter would play for the Caps, but the only one in which he left a winner.

Wednesday at TD Garden, Hunter will seek his second career Game 7 win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and his first as an NHL coach, when the Caps meet the Boston Bruins in the deciding game of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC).

"As a player, I enjoyed them. It was fun. One game takes all," Hunter said. "As a player, you prepare yourself the same way, get ready for the game. And as a coach, you can't get too hyper. You've got to know who's on the ice and who's not. It changes from coach to player, but it’s exciting to be in a Game 7 like this and playing the Boston Bruins."

Hunter coached in five Game 7s with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights (posting a 2-3 record), but his coaching counterpart for Boston, Claude Julien, has been behind an NHL bench for seven Game 7s (4-3 record).

"As a coach, you've got to prepare the guys and then they have to go out and execute," he said. "As a player, you've got to prepare yourself to be ready to play and do the right things. Don't get too high, don't get too low. Just go out and keep it the same."

Like their coach, five current Capitals have also played in four Game 7s with Washington only to come up short three times.

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich and Mike Green will all be appearing in their fifth Game 7 in as many years. This will be their first Game 7 on the road and their first without former coach Bruce Boudreau.

"The only difference is I think we play better defensively this year than previous years," Backstrom said. "It's a good challenge for us to be going to Boston and playing a Game 7 there against the Stanley Cup champions. I think everybody's prepared and we know what's coming."
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Posted On Tuesday, 04.24.2012 / 4:49 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Bruins vs. Capitals series blog

Capitals rested, ready for Game 7

ARLINGTON, Va. – After winning Game 4 of their 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series at Montreal’s Bell Centre, the Washington Capitals boarded the team’s charter flight for what was supposed to be a routine trip back to Washington’s Dulles Airport. 

But as the fate of the Presidents’ Trophy winners was about to grow cloudy against Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens, the sky before them grew increasingly foggy.

The fog forced the Caps’ flight to detour twice before eventually landing in Baltimore. By the time customs officials processed the team, it was nearing four in the morning. Some players wouldn’t arrive home until close to 6 a.m.

It turned out the Capitals themselves would become a little foggy in the days ahead -- a tired bunch left scratching their heads, wondering how they could beat Halak and the Canadiens.

One day after their early morning landing, the Caps lost 2-1 in Game 5 on home ice. Captain Alex Ovechkin was on the ice for both goals, and both came from an area of the ice he is expected to defend.

Five days later, the Caps became the first No. 1 seed to blow a 3-1 first-round series lead as the Canadiens beat Washington 2-1 in Game 7.

Two years later, things seemed a whole lot clearer for the Capitals as they prepared Tuesday morning for their first Game 7 since that loss to Montreal.

As the Caps flew to Boston on Tuesday – on a sunny afternoon -- they did so as a rested (two days between Games 6 and 7) and energized group with the experience of multiple Game 7 disappointments and a better understanding of what it takes to win.

“I think it’s a lot different,” said Jason Chimera, who was also part of the 2010 team. “I think it’s a different team. We’re playing the way you have to play in the playoffs and that makes this year different. In other series the past few years we were trading chances, but this year we’ve kept them in check pretty good.”

The Capitals are preparing for their fifth Game 7 in as many years, having gone 1-3 in the previous four. But this is the first Game 7 with Dale Hunter as coach, and he has the Capitals buying into his system and playing a responsible brand of hockey that could be better suited for the postseason.

“When it comes playoff time, you've got to play playoff style hockey,” Hunter said. “That's hard hockey, grinding it out. Limit your turnovers and you've got to go to the net hard. Goals are scored around the blue paint, and that's where you want to score.”

Added Mike Knuble: “In the past when our offense went away or it was a struggle to score goals it was like ‘Now what?’ You’re thinking a little bit ‘Now what are we going to do?’… But this year has just been a little more conservative and a defense-first approach. In the past it was always that we were the team that was going to try and out-score you. We’ve tried to change it around.”
 
Seven current Caps have been with the team for each of Washington’s last four Game 7s, including Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, John Erskine and Jeff Schultz.
The Caps beat the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, but lost in Game 7 one round later against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps also lost in Game 7 of the first round in 2008 against the Philadelphia Flyers and again in 2010 against Montreal.

“Mentally, right now, we are getting better and better all the time. This is the most important thing,” said captain Alex Ovechkin who has two goals and four points in four career Game 7s. “When you play against a Stanley Cup champion in Game 7, you have to [be] clear mentally and you have to be fresh… I think everybody right now is focusing, and everybody knows what exactly they have to do.”

For the Capitals that means sticking to a simple game plan and limiting mistakes. In a Game 6 loss Sunday to Boston, Washington turnovers led to the Bruins’ third and fourth goals in their 4-3 overtime win.

“We definitely don't want to be in a track meet with these guys,” Laich said. “We want to keep the game tight and keep pucks to the outside and chip and chase. It makes their D-men go back and get it… It almost becomes just a game of mistakes. The team that makes the least is probably going to win.”

The Capitals may not have as much playoff experience as the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins, but they don’t seem overwhelmed by the moment either. The Caps have embraced the role of the road underdog- a recent development for a team that hosted its last four Game 7s- and have bought into a system that could be the difference between a Game 7 win or another playoff disappointment.

“Guys are comfortable and confident and that’s what you want going into Game 7,” Knuble said. “You look around the room and know that everybody’s going to be in this game and everybody’s going to show up."


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Posted On Thursday, 04.19.2012 / 2:54 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Bruins vs. Capitals series blog

Bruins' power play struggling again in playoffs

WASHINGTON -- The Boston Bruins showed last spring that they can win the Stanley Cup with a mediocre power play. The Bruins' power play went 10-for-88 in 25 Stanley Cup Playoff games, including 0-for-21 in their seven-game first round series win against the Montreal Canadiens.

Three games into their 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Washington Capitals, the Bruins are following a similar script with a power play that has gone 0-for-11.

"We've had 10 scoring chances, I think, since the beginning of the series, but we haven't capitalized," Bruins coach Claude Julien said ahead of Game 4 Thursday at Verizon Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC).

"You've heard me say that before, the finish seems to be a bit of a struggle right now. Sometimes [it's about] pouncing on those loose pucks and getting a little bit better in the finishing area, so those are things we're going to continue to work on."

The Bruins' power play finished 15th in the regular-season, and it remains the only power-play unit this postseason still searching for its first goal. Since March 22, Boston's power play is 2-for-32 in 16 games.

"We definitely want to score on the power play, but if you don’t score at least create some momentum and create some chances, and I think we started to do that last game," center David Krejci said. "Then the next shift you go for five-on-five, you at least have the momentum. We worked on it [ahead of Game 4] and hopefully our PP is going to be better and hopefully we'll get some goals."

Added Patrice Bergeron: "I think it's about us creating some openings for each other and talking on the ice and taking what's being given to us and not forcing plays. We have to keep things simple, I think too often you're trying to make the perfect play, but it's not always how it works."
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Posted On Monday, 04.16.2012 / 3:52 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Bruins vs. Capitals series blog

Bruins find offense stymied by Holtby, Capitals

WASHINGTON -- The NHL's second-highest scoring team during the regular season is finding out that scoring against the Washington Capitals is not as easy as it used to be.

As the Capitals and Boston Bruins prepare for Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series (7:30 p.m., ET, NBCSN, CBC), the Caps are a confident bunch embracing coach Dale Hunter's system.

The Bruins are searching for ways not only to beat goalie Braden Holtby, but also to get pucks past any Washington players throwing their bodies in front of oncoming rubber.

Holtby has turned aside 72 of 74 shots for a .973 save percentage, while his teammates have combined to block 49 others.

"Every team in the playoffs comes out of their comfort zone and they know what they have to do extra," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "It's not surprising. It's just that the commitment is there and they've got a good commitment as far as [shot blocking] is concerned right now. [The] New York [Rangers are] probably the team that we can identify as the team blocking the most shots [in the regular season], but now everyone is jumping on board with that."

Washington's commitment to defense has the Bruins on the verge of their lowest three-game offensive output of the year. Only once during the regular season did the Bruins score fewer than five goals combined in any three-game stretch (Boston was held to four goals in three games from Dec. 5-8).

Through two games against the Capitals, the Bruins have been held to just two goals. None of Boston's top-six forwards have found the back of the net.

"They definitely surprised us," said Boston's No. 1 center, David Krejci. "We all know that they're a great team offensively, but they showed us in the last two games that they can also play really good hockey defensively. So we were looking at those last two games, working on a few things, and we hope that it works tonight."
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Posted On Wednesday, 04.11.2012 / 4:37 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Bruins vs. Capitals series blog

Boston perfect spot for Aucoin to make playoff debut

ARLINGTON Va. -- Washington Capitals forward Keith Aucoin was a high school sophomore when he realized a dream that was shared by most hockey players growing up in the Boston area.

With Boston Garden only months from closing, Aucoin and his teammates from Chelmsford High School took celebratory laps around the legendary rink as the 1995 Division I Massachusetts state champions.

"That place was pretty cool," said Aucoin, a native of Waltham, Mass. "I was watching a lot of games there when I was younger and it was a lot different experience going there than it is to the [TD] Garden now, but both are fun places to play."

Seventeen years after that memorable night at Boston Garden, Aucoin is set to experience another lifelong dream when he makes his NHL Stanley Cup Playoff debut Thursday when the Capitals face the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC). It just happens to be at TD Garden against the team he grew up watching.

"It's exciting," Aucoin said of facing the Bruins. "Obviously a lot of family and friends. … I've been getting a lot of calls and text messages. I told everyone to get their own tickets -- they're too expensive. But it's awesome. Obviously growing up a Bruins fan and growing up the goal is to win the Stanley Cup and now [to have] the chance to beat them to get to that goal -- it's going to be a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to getting it going."

It's hard to blame Aucoin if he's chomping at the bit to get Game 1 started. The 33-year-old entered the 2011-12 season having played 75 NHL games spread over six seasons and two organizations. However, he's played 88 games alone in the American Hockey League playoffs.

"It's my first time," Aucoin said of the NHL playoffs. "My last chance was with the [Carolina] Hurricanes [in 2008]. We lost the last game of the year [against Florida] and then Washington beat Florida the next night to make the playoffs and knock us out. So it's my first experience and I'm really looking forward to it. Obviously it makes it a little more special playing Boston."

At 5-foot-8 and 171 pounds, Aucoin went undrafted after four years at Norwich University and began his professional career in 2001 with the now-defunct Broome County Icemen of the United Hockey League.

Since then, Aucoin has spent the better part of the last decade developing into one of the AHL’s all-time greats. He's No. 15th all-time in scoring in AHL history with 777 points in 673 games, a two-time Calder Cup winner with the Hershey Bears and a six-time postseason all-star.

But success in the NHL has been hard to come by for Aucoin, who now has 11 goals and 37 points in 102 NHL games with the Hurricanes and Capitals.

Finding the appropriate role for the offensive-minded Aucoin in the NHL has been a challenge. While he has seen time late this season playing alongside Alex Ovechkin and on the Caps' No.1 power-play unit, Aucoin is expected to begin the playoffs on the fourth line, with Mathieu Perreault and Joel Ward. It's a role Aucoin is ready to embrace.

"I think whenever you play in the playoffs, the game gets a little quicker and it's a lot more physical, but other than that, it's the same type of game," Aucoin said. "You just have to go out there and play your systems and play the way you're capable of playing. Obviously it gets a little more physical, but at the same time I like the physical play, so I'm going to go out there and be a little more physical myself."
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Posted On Tuesday, 04.10.2012 / 4:32 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Bruins vs. Capitals series blog

Ovechkin-Chara matchup a major storyline

ARLINGTON Va. -- Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich recalled this week one of his very first experiences at his first NHL training camp in 2002.

Laich was 19 years old at the time and the Ottawa Senators prospect was undergoing the standard conditioning tests that greet all hockey players every fall.

"It was a fitness test," Laich said. "I did 225 [pounds] on the bench six times as a 19-year-old, and I was happy as a pig in [slop] that I did it."

But Laich's giddiness was short-lived. Moments later, Laich watched as his Senators teammate -- 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara -- began his fitness test.

"And he came in and put on 315 [pounds] and started warming up and was basically just carrying on a conversation while doing it," Laich recalled. "And then I think later on he was squatting five-something and they told him just to rack it -- 'Don't worry about it. We know you have leg power.' And then I think he actually broke the VO2 bike that year, if I'm correct."

Nearly 10 years have passed since Laich's first encounter with Chara, but the Boston Bruins' captain remains among the game's most physically imposing players.

"He's just a specimen," Laich said. "He's head and shoulders -- physically as far as strength and everything -- above everybody in the League."

Laich and the Capitals should see plenty of Chara when they begin their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series Thursday night in Boston.

Laich is expected to center Washington's No. 1 line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer and with the Bruins owning the last change in Games 1 and 2, Chara will likely be matched against Ovechkin as much as possible.

"Everybody knows he's tough, strong," Ovechkin said. "He's big and we have to use his side -- I think we have small forwards [who are] faster than him and we're just going to use it."

Ovechkin has 10 goals and 25 points in 21 career games against Boston with Chara in the lineup, but the two have never met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Ovechkin has said that Chara and Hal Gill are among the defensemen who have given him the toughest challenges throughout his career. Ovechkin faced the 6-foot-7 Gill twice in the playoffs -- in 2009 against the Pittsburgh Penguins and in 2010 against the Montreal Canadiens -- and lost both series in seven games.

"Hal Gill and Chara have two pretty good things in common right? They have a long reach and you have to take a long way around those guys," Bruins coach Claude Julien said in Washington earlier this season.

"As far as Zdeno is concerned, he loves the challenge, he's got the size, he's got the reach and he's got the strength. Ovechkin is a pretty strong player, he's got good speed and somehow you have to make him go around you -- the long way -- in order to get some goals."

Capitals coach Dale Hunter is a notorious line-matcher, but home or away he'll be hard pressed to keep Ovechkin away from the 2008-09 Norris Trophy winner.

"I think over the years they've been playing against each other, so I think they know each other," Hunter said. "And it’s just that you have to work as a line. It's not Ovi against Chara -- it's the line against the Boston Bruins. Not just Chara, either."

If Ovechkin is in fact lined up alongside Laich and Brouwer, Brouwer could provide a physical presence that Ovechkin has not always had when going up against Chara. Creating space, Brouwer says, is the key.

"You can finish him, you can dump it in his corner and you can try to isolate him away from the puck as much as you can, but he's probably going to be on the ice whenever Ovi is, and that's a pretty daunting task for both players," Brouwer said. "They're both good players, they both need to find room out there, and I think it's going to be a real good battle in this series."

Added Ovechkin: "It's going to be nice. It's not going to be just against me and Chara. It's going to be Boston versus Washington, and of course our personalities are going to be out there, but the most important thing is how is the team going to respond to what's going to happen out there."

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Posted On Thursday, 04.05.2012 / 1:46 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Panthers look to Theodore to wrap up division

WASHINGTON -- For all of general manager Dale Tallon's offseason acquisitions, goalie Jose Theodore could have the biggest say in whether the Florida Panthers clinch their first division title in franchise history.

Theodore (22-15-11, 2.43 goals-against average, .918 save percentage) was the first goalie off the ice at the Panthers morning skate ahead of Thursday night's game against the Washington Capitals. He is expected to start for the Panthers in what is being described as the biggest regular-season game in the club's 18-year history.

Florida leads Washington by four points in the Southeast Division and the Panthers need one point in their final two games to clinch not only the Southeast Division but their first playoff berth since 2000. The Panthers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.

"Goaltending is always an area that's a difference maker in our sport," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "It's no different than a quarterback or a pitcher in baseball, but with a goaltender the big save makes a big difference in the hockey game and over the course of the year we've gotten excellent goaltending from both Scott [Clemmensen] and [Theodore]."

Theodore is likely to get the nod against Washington despite allowing a season-high five goals in Tuesday night's 5-4 overtime loss against the Winnipeg Jets. Theodore is also on a personal six-game losing streak (0-2-4) and has not won since March 17. Clemmensen is 2-0-1 over that same stretch.

"It's always been a hard decision for me this year," Dineen said of choosing a starting goalie. "[Clemmensen] has really given us some incredible snapshots and he's played very well, but at the end of the day Jose has really carried the load and been a real workhorse for us."

Not only can Theodore help the Panthers punch their ticket to the playoffs, but the 35-year-old can also put a serious dent in his former team's chances at returning to the postseason.

Theodore spent two seasons as Washington's No. 1 goalie from 2008-10, but is remembered more for his playoff shortcomings than for his regular-season success.

Theodore went 62-24-12 during his two seasons with the Caps, including a 20-0-3 stretch to end the 2009-10 regular season. But after allowing two goals on two shots in Game 2 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Montreal Canadiens, Theodore was pulled by coach Bruce Boudreau and replaced by Semyon Varlamov for the second straight postseason. Theodore never played for the Capitals again and he has not played at Verizon Center since.

Theodore did not address reporters on game day but his Panthers teammate Tomas Fleischmann, who also played with Theodore in Washington, does not expect a repeat performance.

"We play a different style," Fleischmann noted of this Panthers team compared with the Caps teams they played for two and three years ago. "We played up and down, but right now we play safe hockey with a good defensive-minded game and that's how we want to play. … He's playing very good."

Added Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell: "He's been solid all season, we've had great goaltending and I think for Jose, he's been there all season, he's been solid and he's given us a chance to win every night that he's been in there. I wasn't aware of how good he is and he's definitely a No. 1 goaltender."

Michal Neuvirth (13-13-5, 2.86 GAA, .901 save percentage) will start for the Capitals.
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Posted On Thursday, 04.05.2012 / 1:42 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Projected lineups for Panthers, Capitals

WASHINGTON -- Here are the projected lineups for tonight's game at Verizon Center between the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals:

PANTHERS
Tomas Fleischmann - Stephen Weiss - Kris Versteeg
Sean Bergenheim - Marcel Goc - Mikael Samuelsson
Wojtek Wolski - Jerred Smithson - Scottie Upshall
Marco Sturm - John Madden - Tomas Kopecky

Jason Garrison - Brian Campbell
Dmitry Kulikov - Mike Weaver
Erik Gudbranson - Ed Jovanovski

Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Marcus Johansson
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Keith Aucoin - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Matt Hendricks - Jay Beagle - Mike Knuble

Karl Alzner - Dennis Wideman
Roman Hamrlik - Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov - John Carlson

Michal Neuvirth
Braden Holtby

Notes: Joel Ward will miss his seventh straight game after taking a shot off his foot from Flyers forward Danny Briere on March 22. … Jeff Halpern will be a healthy scratch for the sixth straight game and for the 11th time in the last 14 games overall. … Jeff Schultz will be a healthy scratch for the third straight game. … John Erskine and Cody Eakin are also scratched.
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Posted On Saturday, 03.31.2012 / 10:27 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Backstrom returns to help Caps' playoff push

ARLINGTON, Va. – Nicklas Backstrom confirmed after a morning skate Saturday for the Washington Capitals that he will play against the Montreal Canadiens.

Backstrom has not played since Jan. 3 when he took an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque, but the Caps No. 1 center was medically cleared this week to return to the lineup after passing a baseline neuropsychological test.

“I'm really excited,” Backstrom said. “It's going to be fun to play again. It's a big game for us and we need all those points. I'm excited to be back in such an important game.

“It feels like I'm ready. I've been practicing hard and stuff and I've been battling with a couple of guys on the team and I've been taking a couple hits. It feels like I'm ready, so I'm excited to be back.”

On Saturday morning the 24-year-old Swede took line rushes alongside Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson on the Caps’ No.1 unit.

“He’s been missed in all areas,” Johansson said. “He’s such an all-around player, he plays penalty kill, power play, and he plays at the end of games whether we’re up or down, so that was all missed and it’s good to have him back.” 

The Capitals have won 18 of 40 games without Backstrom in the lineup and he remains fifth on the team in scoring with 42 points (13 goals and 29 assists) in 38 games.

The team is hopeful that Backstrom’s return can spark a power play that has gone 15-for-102 (14.7 percent) during his 40-game absence.

“He’s a natural on the half-board, he sees the ice well,” said coach Dale Hunter. “You see him working today; he’s got one of those gifts where he doesn’t have to look at the guy to pass it -- he just knows where he is.”

In the 38 games prior to his injury, Backstrom had a point on 72 percent of Washington’s power play goals (three goals, 15 assists on 25 power play goals).

With four games to play in the regular season, this contest Saturday against Montreal marks just the second time that Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green will have all played in the same game since Hunter was hired Nov. 28.

“He’s one of the best at seeing the ice and seeing plays before they even happen and getting pucks in guys hands so that they can score,” Green said. “When I say that I honestly mean that he’s one of the best and so in that aspect he’s going to help out our team big time. We’re very thankful that he’s back before the end of the regular season.”

Washington is in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 86 points, two points behind the seventh place Ottawa Senators and four points behind the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers.

“It's been frustrating,” Backstrom said of having to watch his team battle for a playoff position. “I think you're more nervous sitting up top in the press box than playing. It's been really tough, but the good thing is I'm back now and I'm just looking forward to it.”

Here is Washington’s projected lineup for Saturday night against the Canadiens:

CAPITALS

Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromMarcus Johansson
Jason ChimeraMathieu PerreaultAlexander Semin
Keith AucoinBrooks LaichTroy Brouwer
Matt HendricksJay BeagleMike Knuble

Karl AlznerDennis Wideman
Roman HamrlikMike Green
Dmitry OrlovJohn Carlson

Michal Neuvirth
Braden Holtby

NOTES:
Since the Canadiens beat the Capitals in Game 7 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Washington has gone 6-0-1 against Montreal with four shutouts from four different goalies.
 
The Caps have won all three meetings this season, outscoring Montreal 10-1. Neuvirth is 3-1-0 against Montreal with a shutout, a 1.82 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage.

Forward Joel Ward will miss his fifth straight game after taking a Daniel Briere shot off his foot last Thursday in Philadelphia … Former Canadiens forward Jeff Halpern will sit as a healthy scratch for the fourth straight game and for the ninth time in the last 12 games overall. 

Bourque served a five-game suspension for his elbow against Backstrom, and he has since been traded to the Canadiens. Asked about playing against Bourque in his first game back, Backstrom downplayed the irony.

“You know what? I don't really care about that," Backstrom said. "It happened, and I'm not going to waste any energy on it."

The Canadiens did not have a morning skate Saturday, but backup Peter Budaj is expected to be in net for Montreal.



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Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 3:19 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Caps turn to Neuvirth, Holtby with Vokoun out again

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Shortly after signing free agent goalie Tomas Vokoun last summer, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said he would have been comfortable moving forward with the goaltending tandem of Michal Neuvirth, 24, and Braden Holtby, 22.

Eight months later, and with four games left to play in the regular season, McPhee may not have a choice.

Vokoun pulled himself from a 3-2 shootout win Thursday night in Boston after aggravating a groin injury which had limited him to just three of Washington’s previous 17 games. Vokoun is officially listed as day-to-day by the team, but Neuvirth and Holtby are preparing to handle the load.

"It's unfortunate what happened the other night with [Vokoun]," Holtby said. "Especially with injuries, you always want to see your teammates back but that's hockey -- that's the way the game goes and now I just have to be ready for whatever."

Holtby has gone 2-1-1 since a March 18 call-up from Hershey of the American Hockey League, but was pulled from a 5-1 loss Tuesday night to the Buffalo Sabres after allowing three goals on 18 shots.

Neuvirth earned the win Thursday night in Boston, turning aside 19 of 21 shots in relief of Vokoun. He is likely to start again Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens.

"Obviously I feel bad for [Vokoun] but it is what it is," Neuvirth said. "But I proved last year that I can be the man and I'm excited. … Every game is a good experience for me. Even last year in the playoffs, that gave me a lot [of confidence] and I feel I grew up a little bit from last year and now I feel that I can do the job."

Neuvirth was the Capitals' undisputed No.1 goalie down the stretch last season, starting 13 of the team's final 14 games including playoffs.

Vokoun had been Washington's primary starter for much of the season, but given that he is working on a one-year contract, it is not out of the question to suggest that he has played his final game as a Capital.

"This is what everyone's goal is -- to be a big part of a team trying to win the Stanley Cup," Holtby said. "But there's also a human aspect to it and we want to make sure that in any way possible that [Vokoun] doesn't feel like he's let the team down by an injury. It's our job to pick up a teammate and carry ourselves into the playoffs."

While Vokoun's health remains a concern, injured Caps forward Nicklas Backstrom could return as early as Saturday against Montreal.

Backstrom has not played since Jan. 3 when he took an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque, but the Caps No. 1 center was medically cleared this week to return to the lineup after passing a baseline neuropsychological test.

The 24-year-old Swede has missed 40 games, but he accompanied the team on their road trip to Boston and skated Friday for the 17th time in the last 18 days.

"There's no target date," Backstrom said. "It depends how I feel. Everything's possible. It's possible that I could [have played] last game, too. It depends how I feel [Saturday]. I felt good out there today, too, so we'll see."

Backstrom said earlier this week that his conditioning was not yet game-ready, but when asked on Friday about catching his wind and working his lungs, Backstrom said he hasn’t felt better. Physically it sounds as though he is ready to play. Preparing mentally may be the final hurdle.

"I think it's more about that you're worried about hitting the head again and maybe I'm out for longer than three months. That's the biggest problem I see. You just got to be mentally ready to face a hockey game."

Capitals coach Dale Hunter is not concerned about Backstrom suffering a similar injury.

"I think through his career here he’s been one of these players that has great vision on the ice," Hunter said. "I haven't seen through the years, some guys take big hits because of their vision -- they don't see the guys coming as much and identifying where everybody is on the ice.

"For him, he's got great vision through the years he hasn’t had big hits. He has his vision still, he has anticipation of the game and he understands the game so he’ll be fine that way."

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Posted On Tuesday, 03.27.2012 / 1:52 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Ovechkin-Miller battle highlights Caps-Sabres

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Two of the NHL’s reigning Three Stars of the Week will meet Tuesday in a crucial Eastern Conference matchup as Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals play host to Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres.

The Capitals are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games while the Sabres are 7-1-2 over that same stretch. The teams enter this contest tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference and the play of their superstars is a big reason why.

Since Feb. 19, Miller has gone 13-1-3 with a 1.78 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. Ovechkin’s hot streak has been a more recent development with 10 goals in his last 10 games.
Ovechkin has also scored in five straight games for the first time in more than two years and has nine goals in his last seven games overall. 

“He gives us energy,” said Capitals coach Dale Hunter, who adds that Ovechkin is doing “the little things like forechecking and finishing his hits and playing with a reckless abandon a little bit. He’s really going in and trying to take the body and trying to drive in with a strong forecheck.”

In a 3-0 win Sunday against the Minnesota Wild, Hunter dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen and double shifted Ovechkin when possible.

Ovechkin went on to play a team-high 26:19, his second highest ice-time total this season, and finished with a goal and an assist. Hunter is expected to dress the same lineup tonight against Buffalo.

“I think everybody wants to play lots of minutes,” Ovechkin said, “and for me personally, the more time I spend on the ice I feel much better because I’m in the game.”

Added Hunter: “He’s in good shape to play that many minutes. I look on the bench and sometimes if you overplay someone they’ve got their head down to try to catch their wind and [with Ovechkin] I look over and he’s ready to play again so that’s why I play him so much.”

Ovechkin also made a sliding defensive play Sunday against Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu to prevent a quality scoring chance. Later that same shift, the Capitals scored and took a 2-0 lead.

“Right now it looks like he’s having a lot of fun,” said linemate Brooks Laich. “That’s the main thing -- it looks like he’s having fun playing the game. When you score, you have fun and when you have fun, you score -- they kind of go hand-in-hand, but it’s tough to do. But goal-scorers love to score goals and you see him -- nobody gets more excited than him.”

Ovechkin’s 10 goals this month are his highest total since he scored 14 times in Oct. 2009 and his 36 goals on the season are tied for fourth-most in the league behind only Steven Stamkos (53), Evgeni Malkin (46) and Marian Gaborik (37).
 
“When he’s in that mode you just follow behind him and just ride his coattails,” Laich said. “When he’s playing at that level he’s got that special ability to elevate his game and when he’s at that level he’s fun to watch and play alongside. It’s incredible.”
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Posted On Tuesday, 03.27.2012 / 12:39 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Caps turn to Holtby for showdown with Sabres

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Eighteen days ago, then-Hershey Bears goalie Braden Holtby allowed five goals and was pulled in the third period of a 6-1 loss to the St. John’s IceCaps.

Tuesday night, the recently recalled 22-year-old will start in the biggest game of the Washington Capitals season. The Caps play host to the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center with the teams tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference and six games to play.
 
"I'm pretty excited for it," Holtby said. "It's a big game, but at the same time it's just another one. It counts as two points, just the same as all the others do. I'm ready to go into it with that mindset, but there will be a little extra motivation to have the team going and get a win."

While former Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller will appear in his 57th game of the year for the Sabres, this will be Holtby’s fifth NHL start this season for the Caps. No pressure, kid.

"I've always been confident in my ability to be an NHL goaltender," said Holtby, who is 2-0-1 since his recall with a 1.29 goals-against average and .955 save percentage.

"Whether it's been some conditioning in Hershey or whatnot, it's been a learning process the last three years and I think I've worked hard with the goalie coaches here to make sure that I would be ready for an opportunity like this."

The Capitals' 2008 fourth-round draft pick had impressive NHL stints last season, going 10-2-2 with a 1.79 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in 14 games, but Holtby had reason to believe that this latest call-up wouldn't last more than a few days.

Holtby was so sure that this NHL stay would be brief that he left his car at the daily parking lot at the Harrisburg International Airport. At $20 a day, "it’s collecting a pretty big paycheck there right now."
 
"It's funny, actually," he said. "I got told Saturday night [March 17] -- we were playing in Hershey -- to go up Sunday morning. And I was basically told, 'See you at the start of the week.' Basically, just go [to Washington] for a couple of days."

A couple of days have now turned into a couple of weeks and with Tomas Vokoun still sidelined because of a nagging groin injury, Michal Neuvirth, 24, and Holtby, 22, could play a major role in the Caps springtime fate.

"As for carrying the team into the playoffs, I really don't know how to answer that because I'm focusing on [this] game," Holtby said. "After this game I'm not sure what will be in store. I'd love to, that's the goal, obviously, for anyone."

Here is Washington's projected lineup for the game against the Sabres.

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Jay Beagle - Mike Knuble
Keith Aucoin - Marcus Johansson

Karl Alzner - Dennis Wideman
Roman Hamrlik - Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov - John Carlson
Jeff Schultz

Braden Holtby
Michal Neuvirth

Notes: Capitals coach Dale Hunter is expected to dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen for the second straight game. With only 11 forwards in a 3-0 win Sunday against Minnesota, Alex Ovechkin played 26:19 -- his second highest ice-time of the season.

Nicklas Backstrom joined his teammates for the morning skate, marking the 14th time in the last 15 days that the Caps' No. 1 center has skated. Backstrom has not played since taking an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque on Jan. 3. The Caps have won 17 of 38 games without Backstrom in the lineup.

Forward Joel Ward will miss his third straight game after taking a Daniel Briere shot off his foot last Thursday in Philadelphia … Jeff Halpern will sit as a healthy scratch for the second straight game and for the seventh time in the last 10 games overall.

Vokoun took part in the skate but is not expected to dress tonight as he continues to recover from his groin injury. The 35-year-old has started just three of the Caps last 16 games dating to Feb. 22.
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Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 2:19 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Vokoun's injury leaves Caps with net quandary

WASHINGTON – The Washington Capitals signed veteran free agent goalie Tomas Vokoun in the summer with the hope he would become a key cog in a deep playoff run.

But with eight regular-season games remaining, the Capitals are not yet guaranteed a playoff berth and their springtime fate could come down to the play of younger goalies Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby.

Vokoun has not played since a 3-2 loss last Friday in Winnipeg and the 35-year-old remains sidelined with a nagging groin injury. The injury has limited Vokoun to just three starts in 14 games since Feb. 22.

"It's just unfortunate for a goalie," Vokoun said after a light skate Friday morning. "I'm not limited in skating or biking or anything like that- it doesn’t bother me walking. It's just for a goalie you do so much explosive stuff and stretching and if you have a pulled groin you can't guard it. It gets used all the time, so it’s a bad injury for goalies."

The Capitals recalled Holtby from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League on Monday and the 22-year-old stopped 57 of 61 shots this week in a 5-3 win in Detroit and 2-1 shootout loss in Philadelphia.

It is not clear if Capitals coach Dale Hunter will go back to Holtby tonight against the Winnipeg Jets or if he will go with Neuvirth, who turns 24 today.

A possible return date for Vokoun is also unknown but it does not sound as though he will be ready to play during the Capitals upcoming three-game homestand.

"Maybe shoot for [a return] sometime next week, but I don’t know," Vokoun said. "You can pull it and [suffer] a setback. It's more of an unpredictable situation right now."

The eighth-place Capitals begin the three game homestand tonight against Winnipeg with upcoming games Sunday against the Minnesota Wild and Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres.

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Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 1:51 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Jets plan: Slow down surging Ovechkin

WASHINGTON – The Winnipeg Jets had two things working in their favor during a 3-2 win against the Washington Capitals last Friday night -- a boisterous home crowd at MTS Centre and an ability to contain Alex Ovechkin and the Caps’ No.1 line.

The Jets and Capitals meet again Friday at Verizon Center, and while the Jets won’t have the same crowd support, their game plan against the Caps remains unchanged.

“I think we played great against Ovechkin,” said Winnipeg goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who is expected to make his 10th straight start for the Jets. “It wasn’t easy for him, we made him work for everything and if you can eliminate the best player on the team, you have a good chance to win.”

The Jets were the only team the Capitals faced on their just completed five-game road trip that kept Ovechkin from scoring.

The two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner has recently shown flashes of his old self with a three-game goal scoring streak and six goals in his last five games overall.

“He’s hitting on all cylinders right now,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. “Before, he was getting his chances but he was hitting posts and missing the net. But right now, he’s in a zone and when you’re in a zone good things happen.”

Ovechkin’s hot streak comes at an opportune time for the Capitals, who could be missing their second-leading scorer Alexander Semin for a second straight game.

Semin did not play in the Caps’ 2-1 shootout loss last night against the Philadelphia Flyers and is considered day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

This game marks the start to a three-game homestand for the Capitals with contests against Winnipeg, Minnesota and Buffalo in the next five days.

The eighth-place Caps are one point clear of Buffalo and five points ahead of Winnipeg in the Eastern Conference standings. While the Capitals were in Philadelphia last night, the Jets have had two days of practice in Washington following an 8-4 loss Tuesday in Pittsburgh.

“I think we know the task,” Jets coach Claude Noel said. “I think we know everything that’s at stake. We’ve been sitting here for a couple of days waiting and the wait is long and tedious. So let’s get going and play the game. We have to be anxious and I sense that our players are ready to go. It’s a road game that we have to win.”
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Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 12:44 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Caps have another chance to damage Jets' hopes

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals missed out on an opportunity last Friday at MTS Centre to bury the Winnipeg Jets in the Eastern Conference standings. The Caps will get a second chance Friday night at Verizon Center.

The eighth-place Capitals had a four-point cushion on Winnipeg for the final playoff position a week ago, but a 3-2 win by the Jets narrowed the gap and gave them hope. Seven days later, it's an almost identical situation with the teams meeting for the sixth and final time this regular season and the Caps now five points clear of 10th-place Winnipeg.

"It's a big game -- it's pretty much the game of the year," Jets forward Alexander Burmistrov said. "Everybody has to step up and we have to play how we usually do at home but now on the road."

If the Jets do in fact fall short in their bid for a playoff berth, their play on the road will largely have something to do with it. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets (10-23-4) have fewer points away from home than the Jets (11-20-4) and of Winnipeg's nine remaining games, six will be on the road.

The Capitals return home tonight after a season-long five-game road trip (2-2-1) which ended with a 2-1 shootout loss Thursday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.

"I think we got some points in some real tough buildings," Caps forward Troy Brouwer said. "I think a couple of our games we didn't show up as much as we would have liked to, especially for this time of the season, but five points in five games is all right.

"We're one point ahead of Buffalo in the standings right now, so we are in the playoffs at this point. But we're looking forward to [tonight's] game. It's going to be a very intense, very exciting game."

The Capitals did not hold a morning skate and it is unclear who will start in goal. Tomas Vokoun remains sidelined with a groin injury and is hopeful of a return next week.

Braden Holtby (1-1-1) has started the last two games with Michal Neuvirth (11-12-4) dressing as the backup. Ondrej Pavelec (27-5-7) will start for the 10th straight game for Winnipeg and for the 15th time in the last 16 games overall.

Here are the projected lineups for the Capitals and Jets:

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Mike Knuble
Keith Aucoin - Jay Beagle - Marcus Johansson
Matt Hendricks - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward/Cody Eakin

Karl Alzner - Dennis Wideman
Roman Hamrlik - Mike Green
Jeff Schultz - John Carlson

Michal Neuvirth
Braden Holtby

Notes: The Capitals recalled Eakin, a Winnipeg native, from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League on Friday. Should Eakin draw into the lineup, it could be in place of either Halpern or Ward.

Eakin has four goals and eight points in 29 NHL games this season. The 20-year-old has also recorded 11 goals and 25 points in 41 AHL games.

Alexander Semin missed the final 7:35 of a 5-3 win Monday in Detroit and has not practiced or played since. He is considered day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

JETS
Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Blake Wheeler
Patrick Kane - Alexander Burmistrov - Kyle Wellwood
Tanner Glass - Jim Slater - Antti Miettinen
Tim Stapleton - Ben Maxwell - Spencer Machacek

Dustin Byfuglien - Tobias Enstrom
Ron Hainsey - Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart - Randy Jones

Ondrej Pavelec
Chris Mason
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Posted On Thursday, 03.08.2012 / 2:27 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Stamkos leading Lightning charge, nearing 50 goals


WASHINGTON -- Nearly three years after Alex Ovechkin celebrated his 50th goal of the 2008-09 season at then-called St. Pete Times Forum, Steven Stamkos has the chance to return the favor Thursday night at Verizon Center as the Tampa Bay Lightning visit the Washington Capitals.

Stamkos leads the NHL with 48 goals and is tied with Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin with 81 points. The 22-year-old Stamkos has been on a tear of late with 11 goals and 19 points in his last 10 games.

The Lightning have won four of five games and seven of 10 overall to climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff race and Stamkos may be the biggest reason. The 11th-place Lightning have pulled within four points of eighth-place Winnipeg and they sit two points behind ninth-place Washington.

"I think he's upped his game to not just that superstar status, but to that elite [status], like when [Ovechkin] had 65 goals," said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, teammates with Stamkos at the 2008 World Junior Championship.

"I remember we played them at home last time and he had half a second in front of the net to score a goal and shoot the puck and he shoots it post and in like it's so easy, like he's sleeping doing it. He's just one of those guys, there's a reason why he's there. He's hard to stop."

Alzner referenced Stamkos scoring from in front of the net, and those around Stamkos acknowledge that with more teams taking away his patented one-timer from the left faceoff circle, more of his goals are coming from around the blue paint.

"He'll score some goals on the power play, but it's not his one-timer from the side anymore on the power play, it's his entire game," Lightning coach Guy Boucher explained.

"He's taken this quest of becoming a complete player and a winner very, very seriously and that's why he's benefitting from scoring from all angles, all kinds of situations -- whether it's a breakaway, two-on-one, wraparound, screen, tip, jam. He does it all."

For Stamkos, becoming a complete player also involved improving his play at even-strength. With more teams taking away his one-timer on the power play, Stamkos has adjusted accordingly. His 38 even-strength goals this season are already second most since the 2005 work stoppage, behind only Ovechkin's 43 in 2007-08.

"There are a lot of good players in this League and when you've played in the League for a while, people pick up on things," Stamkos said.

"They pick up on where you score from, what you like to do when you're in the offensive zone, so you have to make adjustments and be able to adapt to your surroundings. It's about finding ways to score more goals five-on-five, or scoring more goals around the net, whether it's a rebound or a tip. So for me it was something that I wanted to adjust. As you mature throughout your career, you'll always keep finding new ways to get opportunities."

With Vincent Lecavalier missing his ninth straight game tonight because of an upper-body injury, and the February trades of Steve Downie, Dominic Moore and Pavel Kubina, even more weight has been placed on Stamkos' broad shoulders.

But along with Teddy Purcell, who enters play on a 10-game point streak, and Martin St. Louis (6 goals, 5 assists in his last 10 games), Tampa Bay's No. 1 line has responded.

"I put that pressure on myself regardless of who is in the lineup," Stamkos said. "Obviously it's magnified now with the trades that we made and with Vinny out and Heddy out for a while -- it was nice to get him back last game -- but for right now for Teddy, Marty and I, we realize that we need to score goals to help our team win and we like that pressure."
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Posted On Thursday, 03.08.2012 / 1:34 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Caps, Lightning could have different look in net

WASHINGTON -- Both the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning will have a different look in goal Thursday when the Southeast Division rivals meet at Verizon Center.

Tomas Vokoun will start for the Capitals for the first time in more than two weeks, while the Lightning will look to continue their late-season surge without recent No. 1 Mathieu Garon, who left a game Tuesday against Ottawa and is out indefinitely.

Garon had started 19 of Tampa Bay's last 23 games (going 12-4-2 in 18 decisions), but Lightning coach Guy Boucher would not say this morning who will start against the Capitals.

Boucher's options are 42-year-old Dwayne Roloson (8-13-2, 3.82 goals-against average, .878 save percentage), or 22-year-old Dustin Tokarski, who has two career NHL relief appearances and was recalled from AHL Norfolk on Wednesday.

"I haven't talked to the goalies yet," Boucher said this morning. "I talked to [Roloson] yesterday and we talked about our plan for the next days. I haven't talked to Tokarski; he just got in. I'll talk to him around lunchtime and I'll talk to Roli and I'll explain the plan for them."

Tokarski has won a team-record eight straight games with Norfolk, with a 1.75 GAA and .927 save percentage during that stretch. His two NHL appearances came in Jan. 2010 when he allowed three goals on 16 shots spread across 44 minutes.

Boucher acknowledged there is much to consider when planning the goaltending rotation.

"Who we're playing, circumstances, experiences and just having some time to get accustomed to things for the young guy and for the older guy to make sure he understands the situation and what's going on," Boucher said. "There are quite a few things that I need to discuss with them."

For the Capitals, Vokoun returns after he was pulled in each of his last two starts, Feb.20 in Carolina and Feb.22 in Ottawa, when he allowed a combined six goals on 18 shots. Michal Neuvirth had started the six games since (3-2-1).

"I thought Neuvy played well, but he's played a lot of games and Tomas is feeling great so we'll go with him," Capitals coach Dale Hunter explained. "You can't let them sit too long so Tomas is good to go."

Vokoun is 23-16-2 with a 2.52 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage, and has not started at home in nearly a month -- a Feb. 9 shootout loss to Winnipeg.

The first draft pick in Tampa Bay Lightning history, Roman Hamrlik, will be a healthy scratch for the Capitals tonight for the eighth straight game. He'll be joined in the press box by Mike Knuble and John Erskine.

Vincent Lecavalier remains on injured-reserve for the Lightning and will miss his ninth straight game with an upper-body injury.

Below are the projected lineups for the Capitals and Lightning:

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin - Brooks Laich - Marcus Johansson
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Jay Beagle - Troy Brouwer
Keith Aucoin - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Jeff Schultz - Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov - Dennis Wideman

Tomas Vokoun
Michal Neuvirth

LIGHTNING
Martin St. Louis - Steven Stamkos - Teddy Purcell
Ryan Malone - Nate Thompson - Adam Hall
JT Wyman - Tom Pyatt - Brett Connolly
Ryan Shannon - Tim Wallace - Brandon Segal

Victor Hedman - Eric Brewer
Brett Clark - Brian Lee
Mike Commodore - Brendan Mikkelson

Dwayne Roloson
Dustin Tokarski
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Posted On Tuesday, 03.06.2012 / 2:10 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Staal looking to match NHL season-high point streak

WASHINGTON -- Eric Staal will look to match the longest point streak in the NHL this season, as the Carolina Hurricanes try to keep their slim playoff hopes alive when they visit the Washington Capitals tonight at Verizon Center.

Staal is on an 11-game point streak (7 goals and 13 assists), one shy of John Tavares' season-high 12-game point streak set in January.

"Not only has he been going very strong, but he's made guys around him better as well," said coach Kirk Muller. "Certainly not to take anything away from the other players, but he's really taken this team on his shoulders and played some really good hockey. Playing really well with and without the puck, a really good two-way forward, he takes on a lot of ice time, he's our leader and he's been leading us in the right direction."

The Hurricanes are 5-2-4 during Staal's 11-game point streak, but they remain 10 points behind eighth place Winnipeg as they begin a season-high five-game road trip.

Staal has also tied Dave Keon's 32-year-old franchise record with a 10-game assist streak.

"He's big, he's fast, he has good hands and he generates speed very, very well," said Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner, who along with defense partner John Carlson will be among those responsible tonight for limiting Carolina's No. 1 line.

"He uses the other four players on the ice and it turns him into a pretty deadly player. When he comes wide on you, you better time it right, or else you're not going to have a chance to stop him. He's very tough."

Among those that have benefitted from Staal's play of late have been linemates Jiri Tlusty and Anthony Stewart. Tlusty has 12 points in 13 games, while Stewart is coming off his first multi-goal game of the season.

"Staal is a top-tier player in the League," Stewart said. "He's always out there making things happen, so when you're out there with him, you're just going to do whatever you can to get him the puck and let him do his thing and hopefully bang a couple of goals in."

Stewart has been given the chance to stick with the top line while Tuomo Ruutu remains sidelined with an upper-body injury.

"That's kind of our group -- everyone just kind of contributing in different ways," Muller said. "At one time we had five injuries and so guys had to jump into different roles and take on different responsibilities, and I thought the guys really adjusted well.

"Guys have really stepped up, and Stewey is one of them -- he's jumped up, played with Stalsey, he's been producing, skating and playing hard, and that's what we need guys to do."

Playing with Staal and Tlusty is also an opportunity not lost on Stewart.

"I have to make the most of it," he said. "Playing fourth line most of the year, you don't really have a chance to show what you can do -- you just have to keep it as simple as possible. But now with the increased playing time, I can get a little more comfortable and confident, and I'm just trying to contribute any way I can."
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Posted On Tuesday, 03.06.2012 / 1:26 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Canes must win on road to keep last-gasp hopes alive

WASHINGTON -- The Carolina Hurricanes begin a season-long five-game road trip tonight as they visit the Washington Capitals in a Southeast Division matchup at Verizon Center.

The Hurricanes are 10 points behind eighth place Winnipeg in the Eastern Conference and will play five road games in the next eight days against the Capitals, Sabres, Lightning, Panthers and Rangers.

"It's definitely going to be make or break," Hurricanes forward Anthony Stewart said of the trip. "It's going to be a dogfight and we can't get too far ahead of ourselves looking at the standings. We just have to win one game, and it's at that point in the season where one point or an overtime loss isn't acceptable. We have to start getting two points, and hopefully it starts tonight."

The Hurricanes have made a habit of earning just one standings point, dropping three of their last five games overall after regulation.

The more disturbing trend for Kirk Muller's team is that the Hurricanes held a third period lead in all three games -- a pair of shootout losses to Anaheim (Feb. 23) and Florida (Feb. 25) and an overtime loss to Tampa Bay last Saturday.

"On our home stretch we had a couple of tough points that we lost in different ways," Muller said, "but our games have been good, we've been strong and aggressive, but we have to play that same way going on the road."

Carolina has won an NHL-low seven games on the road this season (7-14-8). Cam Ward is expected to start tonight, but with a pair of back-to-back games scheduled on the road trip, backup Brian Boucher is likely to earn his first start since Dec. 3 sometime in the next few days. Boucher was activated over the weekend after missing three months with a lower-body injury.

Below are the projected lineups for tonight’s game between the Capitals and Hurricanes:

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin - Brooks Laich - Marcus Johansson
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Jay Beagle - Troy Brouwer
Keith Aucoin - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Jeff Schultz - Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov - Dennis Wideman

Michal Neuvirth
Tomas Vokoun

HURRICANES
Jiri Tlusty - Eric Staal - Anthony Stewart
Jeff Skinner - Jussi Jokinen - Chad LaRose
Andreas Nodl - Brandon Sutter - Patrick Dwyer
Derek Joslin - Tim Brent - Jerome Samson

Tim Gleason - Bryan Allen
Jay Harrison - Justin Faulk
Jaroslav Spacek - Jamie McBain

Cam Ward
Brian Boucher

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Posted On Monday, 03.05.2012 / 2:08 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Injured forward Backstrom takes respite in Sweden

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom is in Sweden to spend time with his family, a team spokesman confirmed to NHL.com Monday.

The Capitals' No. 1 center has been sidelined with a concussion since taking an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque on Jan. 3.

Backstrom has skated for just five minutes over the past 58 days -- an attempt on Jan. 23. He has since been limited to riding a stationary bike.

According to the team, Backstrom is not seeing any medical specialists in Sweden, and the return home is strictly to see family and to spend some time away from hockey.

Backstrom spoke to reporters last month and acknowledged the frustration in coming to the practice facility on a daily basis but being unable to join his teammates on the rink.

The 24-year-old flew to Sweden last week as the Caps began a season-long five-game homestand. He is expected to return to Washington on Sunday.

Backstrom's spending time at home is a measure not unlike one Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby took last season when he spent time in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, while recovering from his concussion.

Capitals general manager George McPhee said last Monday that while he remains hopeful Backstrom will return this season, there is still no timetable for a full recovery.

"I don't have an answer for you on that," McPhee said after the NHL Trade Deadline. "I wish I did. It's a lot easier to plan if you have an answer. But we don't have an answer."

The Caps have won 11 of the 27 games Backstrom has missed, and Dale Hunter continues to search for answers for a power-play unit that is 2-for-34 since Feb. 12, and 6-for-68 since Jan. 13.

"I certainly think we're capable of making the playoffs with this team right now," McPhee said. "If Nicky Backstrom came back it certainly would improve our chances of being able to win a Cup. We can make the playoffs with this team, and if he comes back we can beat anybody in this conference."

Backstrom remains the Capitals' second leading scorer this season with 42 points in 38 games.

The Capitals begin the week in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the eighth-place Winnipeg Jets. The Caps close out their five-game homestand this week with games against Carolina on Tuesday and Tampa Bay on Thursday.

Vokoun Returns: Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun returned to practice today after sitting out this past weekend with a lower-body injury. The 35-year-old says he hopes to be fully recovered and available for tomorrow’s game against Carolina.

Michal Neuvirth has gone 3-3-0 in starting the last six games for the Caps. Braden Holtby was recalled from AHL Hershey yesterday and dressed as Neuvirth’s backup last night against Philadelphia.

All three goalies took part in Dale Hunter's Monday practice, but Holtby was later reassigned to Hershey.
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Posted On Sunday, 03.04.2012 / 1:59 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Capitals projected lineup

WASHINGTON -- It's hard to quantify just how much the Washington Capitals have missed Nicklas Backstrom since their No.1 center suffered a concussion Jan.3.

The Caps have won 11 of the 26 games he has missed and they have been held to two goals or less 15 times over that stretch.
But nowhere has Backstrom's absence been felt more of late than on Washington's woeful power play -- a unit that has gone 2-for-34 over its last ten games.

"Our power play is killing us," said Capitals defenseman Dennis Wideman. "We're making wrong reads, we're not backing each other up when there's a bouncing puck. We're giving up breakaways and goals every game and we're not scoring or even creating chances. Our power play is absolutely killing us."

Following Friday's 5-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils -- a game in which the Caps' power play went 0-for-2 while allowing a shorthanded goal against -- coach Dale Hunter spoke of the challenge in trying to replace Backstrom on the half wall on the Caps No.1 PP unit.

"We have to play safer," Hunter said, "get it down low and just get pucks to the net… We're looking for a half board guy; you can see us trying different guys on the half board with Nicky out. He was our half board guy for years and we're still looking."

Hunter hopes that half wall position can be successfully filled by Alex Ovechkin beginning tonight against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Ovechkin has spent much of his power play time this season at the left point but with four capable defensemen in Wideman, Mike Green, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, Hunter has decided to shift Ovechkin to the half wall and will go with two defensemen on each power play unit.

The decision to go with two defensemen on the power play could also have to do with the troubling trend which has seen the Capitals allow four shorthanded goals in their last ten games -- the same stretch in which they have scored just two power play goals of their own.

"They can defend a one-on-one better," Hunter explained. "They're just calmer back there than having [Brooks Laich] or Ovi back there. It's tougher on a forward because you're not comfortable and so we'll put them up front and we've got four pretty good offensive D so we'll use it."

In addition the changes on the power play, former Flyer Mike Knuble will also return to the Capitals' lineup after sitting as a healthy scratch in four straight games in 7 of 11 overall.

Michal Neuvirth is expected to make his fifth straight start, with Braden Holtby serving as the backup. Holtby was recalled from AHL Hershey this morning, with Tomas Vokoun sidelined day-to-day with a lower body injury.

Washington's projected lineup for tonight's game against the Flyers is included below:

CAPITALS

Alex OvechkinMarcus JohanssonTroy Brouwer
Jason ChimeraMathieu PerreaultAlexander Semin
Matt Hendricks- Brooks LaichMike Knuble
Jay BeagleJeff HalpernJoel Ward

Karl AlznerJohn Carlson
Jeff SchultzMike Green
Dmitry OrlovDennis Wideman

Michal Neuvirth
Braden Holtby
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Posted On Sunday, 03.04.2012 / 1:55 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Flyers look to solve first-goal problem against Caps

WASHINGTON -- The Philadelphia Flyers have allowed the first goal in a staggering nine-straight games and in 12 of their last 13 games overall.

The notoriously slow-starting Flyers have led just once in the last 36 games at the ten-minute mark of the first period.

"It's not something we're proud of," said forward Daniel Briere ahead of tonight's game against the Washington Capitals. "We keep talking about it, but for some reason it keeps happening over and over again so it's something that we're trying to fix. I don't know exactly what's wrong."

Briere is in an 18-game scoreless drought -- his longest since 1998-99- but if there is a team best equipped to play from behind this season, it may be the Flyers. Peter Laviolette's team is averaging a league-best 3.3 goals-per-game, and Philadelphia's 76 second period goals are tops in the NHL.

"I'd rather fix the problem," Laviolette said of having to come back from early deficits. "Coming back is a wear mentally and physically on your team. It's nice to have a team that competes and doesn't quit, but you'd rather go out and jump on an early lead and build that up. So it shows a little bit of resiliency, but we'd rather fix the problem."

The Flyers are 4-5-0 while allowing the first goal in their last nine games and they have not won back-to-back games since a pair of one-goal wins over the Hurricanes and Islanders Jan.10-12.

Philadelphia begins the day in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 77 points, but the Flyers could drop to seventh with a regulation loss today and wins by the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators.

The Capitals have also made falling behind early a common occurrence. The Caps have allowed the first goal in 9 of their last 11 games overall and compared to Washington teams of the past; this year's edition has found it difficult to play catch up.

Under coach Dale Hunter the Caps have won 16 of the 20 games in which they have scored first. They have also lost 18 of the 22 games in which they have allowed the first goal under Hunter.

Ilya Bryzgalov (23-13-6) will make his season-high eighth straight start tonight for the Flyers while the Capitals are expected to start Michal Neuvirth (9-10-3) for a fifth straight game.
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Posted On Friday, 03.02.2012 / 12:22 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Caps focused on having big weekend

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals seek a return to the top eight in the Eastern Conference on Friday as they continue their season-long five-game homestand against the New Jersey Devils.

After consecutive wins against the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders, the competition gets stiffer this weekend with the Devils' visit tonight and the Philadelphia Flyers in town Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

"It’s a challenge for us," Capitals forward Joel Ward said of the weekend ahead. "Obviously if you win outright, you can advance and move up in the standings as much as you can. We've had some success at home, so we just have to keep building on that."

The Caps have the second-best home record in the Eastern Conference (21-7-2), but they enter play tonight in ninth place in the conference, one point behind eighth-place Winnipeg and six points behind seventh place New Jersey.

Washington also is within three points of the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers.

The Devils will look to snap a four-game winless streak (0-3-1), following last night's 4-3 overtime loss in Boston. The last time New Jersey went winless in five straight was a six-game skid from Dec. 17-29, 2011.

Michal Neuvirth (9-9-3) will make his fourth straight start for the Capitals while Johan Hedberg (13-7-2) is expected to start for the Devils. Martin Brodeur played last night in Boston, his ninth straight start.

"They had an overtime loss last night," Caps forward Matt Hendricks said of the Devils, "so they're going to try to take it to us early and then play defense for the rest of the game. So we need to get on them, force them into penalties and not allow them many chances."

The Devils did not skate this morning while all but four Capitals (Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson and Dennis Wideman) took part in an optional skate.

Capitals coach Dale Hunter said all four players will play tonight. Veterans Roman Hamrlik and Mike Knuble will be healthy scratches for the fifth and fourth straight games respectively.

Here are the projected lineups for tonight’s game:

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin - Marcus Johansson - Keith Aucoin
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Jay Beagle - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Jeff Schultz - Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov - Dennis Wideman

Michal Neuvirth will start in goal, with Tomas Vokoun the backup.

DEVILS
Zach Parise - Adam Henrique - Ilya Kovalchuk
Petr Sykora - Patrick Elias - Dainius Zubrus
Alexei Ponikarovsky - Jacob Josefson - David Clarkson
Eric Boulton - Ryan Carter - Steve Bernier

Mark Fayne - Andy Greene
Marek Zidlicky - Anton Volchenkov
Adam Larsson - Bryce Salvador

Johan Hedberg will get the start in goal, with Martin Brodeur the backup.

Sykora will play his 999th NHL game tonight.
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Posted On Tuesday, 02.28.2012 / 3:42 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Tavares learned a lot playing for Dale Hunter

WASHINGTON -- It has been three months to the day since former Capitals captain Dale Hunter was named the 15th head coach in club history.

Hunter has since compiled a 19-17-4 record, while attempting to transform the once offensively potent Capitals into a more conservative defensive hockey team.

"I like the way he coaches," general manager George McPhee said Monday. "Certainly I think we're a team that's much better defensively. We haven't given up much under [Hunter] and you've got to be stingy defensively."

Hunter has been challenged in recent weeks for his handling of goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth and for his scratching healthy veterans Roman Hamrlik and Mike Knuble.

Tonight against the Islanders, Hamrlik is expected to be a healthy scratch for the fourth straight game, Knuble for the third straight game.

"If you play well you're going to stay in the lineup," Hunter said. "And especially down the stretch here, we need who is playing the best to be in the lineup to win games."

Islanders leading goal scorer John Tavares is familiar with the concept. Tavares played 38 games for Hunter's London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League in 2009.

"The biggest message that I remember he used to send is that if you weren't playing well or doing things the right way, or if you were making mistakes and not working hard, then you usually just didn't play," Tavares said.

Tavares was already the projected first pick in the 2009 Entry Draft when he joined London in an OHL trade from Oshawa. But the 18-year-old recalls being treated no differently than any of his teammates while playing for Hunter.

"If he had that trust in you and you played the game the right way, then you were going to be counted on for a lot of responsibility," Tavares said. "He wanted to make sure that you were not taking things for granted, that you were doing the right things out there and that you were working hard."

In 38 combined regular-season and playoff games under Hunter, Tavares had 42 goals and 71 points. But it was his play away from the puck, Tavares says, that benefitted most from Hunter's tutelage.

"Not only were you going to be counted on offensively, but in defensive situations as well," he said. "That's where he really helped me understand that I could be a better player on both sides of the puck and he had a lot of faith in me that way and it definitely helped me prepare for the National Hockey League."

The Knights were the OHL's Midwest Division champions in 2008-09, but were eliminated in five games by the eventual Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires in the conference finals.

"It was a lot of fun," Tavares said of playing for Hunter. "He taught me a lot even though I was there only for a short period of time. He had a lot of trust in me and gave me a lot of opportunity when I went there. … I had a great time, we had a great team, and I really excelled and learned a lot from him and I'm happy to see him get the opportunity at this level."
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Posted On Tuesday, 02.28.2012 / 2:04 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Aucoin, Cizikas look to capitalize on NHL ice time

WASHINGTON -- After skating alongside Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson at practice yesterday, Capitals forward Mike Knuble was asked if he read anything into his practicing with the No. 1 line.

"No because I imagine Keith [Aucoin] will be back [Tuesday]," said Knuble, a healthy scratch the previous two games while American Hockey League call-up Keith Aucoin donned a Caps sweater both nights. "That's what I assume will happen -- that he'll be back [Tuesday]. So I just got to fill in his spot for a day."

Twenty-four hours later, Knuble's theory was proven correct. Aucoin was recalled from the AHL Hershey Bears this morning and will play tonight as the Caps host the New York Islanders at Verizon Center.

Aucoin will play on a line with Ovechkin and Johansson while Knuble will sit as a healthy scratch for the third straight game and for the sixth time in the last 10 games overall.

"Definitely, he played pretty well last game, so we're giving him the chance to play again," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said.

Aucoin had a goal and an assist in a 4-2 win Saturday in Toronto. Those are Aucoin's only two points in eight NHL games this season, but the 2009-10 AHL Most Valuable Player is second in AHL scoring this season with 70 points in 43 games.

"We all know he's not a big guy," Hunter said of the 5-foot-8 forward. "But he's smart player. That's why he's put numbers up in the American League and wherever he's been he's played well offensively and he's a smart player."

While the 33-year-old Aucoin won't be mistaken for a blue-chip prospect, he is nonetheless making the most of his latest look in the NHL.

At the other end of the spectrum, 21-year-old Casey Cizikas is looking to take advantage of his first look in the NHL.

Cizikas was recalled by the Islanders from AHL Bridgeport last Thursday and will play in his third career NHL game tonight against the Capitals.

Cizikas appeared in the AHL all-star game in January, and was Bridgeport's leading scorer with 45 points in 51 games at the time of his recall.

"If you had told me coming into the season that this is how it would have been, I never would have believed you," said Cizikas, the Islanders' fourth-round pick at the 2009 Entry Draft. 

"It's been a dream year right now for me as a professional rookie. It's something I never imagined but it's definitely been fun, first getting the call for the [AHL] all-star game and now this is just icing on the cake. It's definitely been a year that I'm never going to forget."

With the Islanders trading veteran forward Brian Rolston to Boston ahead of Monday's trade deadline, Cizikas could get an extended look down the stretch.

The 5-foot-11, 192-pound center has primarily seen third-line duty with the Islanders and is expected to skate alongside Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo tonight in Washington.

"I try to be more of an energy guy up here," Cizikas said. "We have so many guys that can put the puck in the net, so if I could chip that would be nice, but I think my role here is to get pucks deep, grind in the corners and finish my checks. So that's what I've been trying to do and everyday I'm getting more comfortable out there."
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Posted On Tuesday, 02.28.2012 / 1:04 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Caps use same personnel as they chase third straight

WASHINGTON -- The Capitals look for their first three-game winning streak since Jan. 11-15 as they begin a five-game homestand tonight against the New York Islanders.

Washington begins the day in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind eighth place Winnipeg and three points behind the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers.

The Islanders have lost three of their last four games to drop to 13th place in the conference, eight points out of a playoff position.

Dale Hunter is expected to use the same lineup that won back-to-back games last weekend against Montreal and Toronto. That means that veterans Mike Knuble, Roman Hamrlik and John Erskine will again be healthy scratches.

"You have to work hard in practice and prepare yourself that when I get in I'm going to play well," Hunter said. "Now if Hammer or Knubes get in and they play well, they'll bump out a guy. That's the way it is."

Hamrlik, who has played no fewer than 75 games in each of the past five seasons, will be a healthy scratch for the fourth straight game, while Knuble will watch from the press box for the third straight game, and for the sixth time in 10 games overall.

Knuble, 39, has 3 goals and 12 points in 57 games this season and has spent much of the season on Washington's fourth line.

"I haven't been healthy scratched in six years," said Caps forward Brooks Laich, "but my second year when I got healthy scratched, you feel like you're forgotten about. The rest of the team is here and you're just a forgotten piece, and for the guys that aren't playing, you want to make sure that as a teammate that you still include them in everything. Talk about the game with them and keep them involved as much as possible, because it would be easy if nobody talks to them for them to go the other way."

Michal Neuvirth (8-9-3) is expected to start a third straight game for the Caps for the first time since Dec. 15-26 when the 23-year-old started five straight games.

Evgeni Nabokov (15-15-0) will start for the Islanders. Nabokov, an unrestricted free agent at season's end, was thought to have been on the trading block prior to yesterday's deadline.

"Nabby has been a huge part of our success," Islanders captain Mark Streit said. "But honestly, I didn't expect [a trade] because we're still in it, we have a shot -- we need a great run here, let's not fool ourselves -- but [general manager] Garth [Snow] didn't want to make any deals because he believes in the team and has a lot of faith in us so we're all looking forward to the next six weeks."

Here are the projected lineups for tonight’s game:

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin - Marcus Johansson - Keith Aucoin
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Jay Beagle - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Jeff Schultz - Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov - Dennis Wideman

Michal Neuvirth
Tomas Vokoun

ISLANDERS

Matt Moulson - John Tavares - PA Parenteau
David Ullstrom - Frans Nielsen - Josh Bailey
Michael Grabner - Casey Cizikas - Kyle Okposo
Matt Martin - Marty Reasoner - Jay Pandolfo

Andrew MacDonald - Travis Hamonic
Mark Streit - Milan Jurcina
Mark Eaton - Steve Staios

Evgeni Nabokov
Al Montoya

NOTES: The Capitals have the second best home record in the Eastern Conference at 20-8-2. … Nabokov is 10-1-0 lifetime against the Caps with two shutouts, a 1.98 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. … Nino Niederreiter is expected to be a healthy scratch for the Islanders. Niederreiter has 1 goal in 39 games this season and his minus-19 rating is last among Eastern Conference forwards.
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Posted On Friday, 02.24.2012 / 2:14 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Winning now imperative for Capitals, Canadiens

WASHINGTON -- Two teams in desperate need of a win meet tonight at Verizon Center as the Washington Capitals host the Montreal Canadiens.

The Capitals have lost three straight and six of seven overall; the Canadiens have lost two straight and four of five overall.

Washington has dropped four points behind the Southeast Division leading Winnipeg Jets, while Montreal enters play tonight in the Eastern Conference basement.

"We just have to win," said Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, who is expected to play tonight after missing Wednesday's game in Ottawa with a lower-body injury.

"We have to play better offensively, defensively, and our goaltending has to be better. We can't point to one guy. All guys on the ice and on the bench have to be ready 100 percent, especially in this situation. We can't give up."

The Capitals have hurt themselves of late thanks in part to slow starts. Washington has allowed the first goal in six straight games, fallen behind 2-0 in three straight games, and trailed 4-0 in the past two games.

"It's imperative that we get a win tonight," said Capitals forward Troy Brouwer. "We're just keying in on our start now. That's what's been killing us. On that last [four-game] road trip we got outscored 7-0 in the first period, so that has to change if we want to have success coming down the stretch here."

Not only have the Capitals fallen behind early, but in most cases they have struggled to come back. In the last six games -- covering 360 minutes of hockey -- the Caps have led for just 6 minutes and 33 seconds.

The Canadiens, meanwhile, are coming off a 3-0 loss to the Dallas Stars and have not scored against the Capitals in more than 216 minutes.

Washington has blanked the Canadiens in three straight games dating to last season (oddly enough with three different starting goalies), and in four of their last six meetings overall.

Michal Neuvirth (6-9-3) will start for the Caps while Carey Price (22-22-9) goes for Montreal. Neuvirth made 31 saves in a 3-0 win in Montreal on Jan. 18. He will be making his first start at Verizon Center since Dec. 20.

Here are the projected lineups for tonight's game:

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Marcus Johansson - Mike Knuble
Jay Beagle - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Jeff Schultz - Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov - Dennis Wideman

Michal Neuvirth
Tomas Vokoun

CANADIENS

Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole
Lars Eller - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn
Ryan White - Scott Gomez - Rene Bourque
Petteri Nokelainen - Louis Leblanc - Aaron Palushaj

Josh Gorges - P.K. Subban
Raphael Diaz - Alexei Emelin
Tomas Kaberle - Chris Campoli
Yannick Weber

Carey Price
Peter Budaj

Notes: Mathieu Darche remains sidelined with flu. … One of Nokelainen, Leblanc or Palushaj will likely sit as Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth is expected to dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
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Posted On Friday, 02.24.2012 / 1:42 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Markov skates, still hopes to play this season

WASHINGTON -- Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov skated with his teammates this morning for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Dec. 5.

Markov has not played since Nov. 13, 2010, but says he hopes to return to the Canadiens lineup before the end of this season.

"That's my goal," said Markov, who has yet to take part in contact drills. "I can't tell you exactly the time and the date [for a return], but I try to push and feel better every day."

Markov's return to practice is a sliver of good news for a Canadiens team that has lost two straight and four of five overall to drop to last place in the Eastern Conference.

This morning's skate came ahead of Montreal's game tonight against the Washington Capitals.

"It feels great. It was a long time that I didn't play or practice with the team, so I feel good and I'm happy to be back with the team," Markov said.

Markov, who signed a three year contract with the Canadiens last summer, has played just seven games since the start of the 2010-11 season. His absence has been most noticeable on Montreal's power play, which ranks 29th in the NHL at 13.8 percent.

With Markov quarterbacking the Canadiens' power play for parts of five seasons from 2005-2010, Montreal finished among the top five in power play efficiency four times.

"It's not easy," Markov said of watching the Canadiens struggle just to stay in playoff contention. "Especially with our team, with the history and our fans and with [the media] putting pressure on us, it's not easy but we have to find a way to be better as a team, as a group and hopefully we're going to play better tonight and the rest of the games."

Markov underwent knee surgery in Dec. 2010 and was close to returning to the Montreal lineup in late November when he accompanied the team to California. The 33-year-old suffered a setback, though, requiring another operation.

With the Canadiens eight points out of a playoff position, both Markov and the organization are taking every precaution to assure that when he does return to the lineup he'll be there to stay.

"It's a tough recovery for me," he said. "I don't want to play just one game and have another injury or another surgery. I want to continue to play all of next season and feel healthy.

"I think that both sides understand. Nobody is pushing me to be back too early. They're giving me time to recover and to be 100 percent. The hockey rule is that if you step on the ice you have to give 100 percent every night so I don’t want to play at 75-percent, I want to give my best every night."

Markov is expected to remain with the Canadiens as they head south for games Monday and Wednesday against Florida and Tampa Bay.

"I think it's a step in the right direction, it's part of the process," Montreal coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "The next thing we can look forward is a little bit of contact -- we don't have a timetable for it -- so we're just going to proceed forward everyday, and as he feels good we're going to get to that point where he can take a little more on and be more physical."


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Posted On Friday, 02.24.2012 / 11:49 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Ovechkin says he's a go for Montreal game

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin is expected to play Friday night when the Washington Capitals host the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center.

Ovechkin missed Wednesday night's 5-2 loss against the Ottawa Senators due to a lower-body injury and did not practice Thursday.

The Capitals’ captain skated briefly on his own this morning in shorts and a T-shirt before taking part in the first 15 minutes of the team skate.

Shortly after coming off the ice, Ovechkin confirmed that he will be in the lineup against Montreal.
 
"We just tried a couple of days ago skating and I didn't feel well," Ovechkin said. "Last night I didn't feel well but today I feel normal."

The Capitals have lost three straight games and six of seven overall to fall four points behind the Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg Jets.

"It was frustrating, especially in this period of time in the season," Ovechkin said of missing Wednesday's game in Ottawa. "I was in a situation where I couldn't help my teammates and I couldn't help the team to win, so it was kind of bad feelings, but it is what it is and right now I feel normal and I'm ready to go."

Michal Neuvirth is expected to start in goal for the Capitals while John Erskine and Roman Hamrlik will likely be healthy scratches for the second straight game.

Neuvirth earned a 3-0 shutout at the Bell Centre, Jan. 18.
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Posted On Wednesday, 02.15.2012 / 5:11 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Ex-Caps star Kolzig critical of Ovechkin's game

ARLINGTON, Va. – Even before Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin declined his invite to the NHL All-Star Game while serving a three-game suspension, there were whispers that the former Hart Trophy winner wasn’t deserving of a trip to the midseason classic in the first place.

For the second straight season, Ovechkin’s numbers are well below his career averages. The four-time 50-goal scorer is on pace for 34 goals and a career-low 65 points and the team he captains remains on the outside of a playoff position.

“I think a lot is frustration,” said Ovechkin’s former teammate Olaf Kolzig, now the Capitals’ associate goaltending coach. “Obviously he's not scoring at the clip that he's accustomed to. Part of that is not having Nicklas Backstrom (sidelined since Jan.3 with a concussion) in the lineup.”

While Backstrom’s injury may have something to do with Ovechkin’s recent slide, an argument can be made that Ovechkin has played below expectations for the last year-and-a-half.
 
Along the way, Ovechkin’s ice-time has dropped, new systems have been implemented and coaches have come and gone. The once high flying Capitals have been replaced by a team that aims to win low-scoring contests. Still, Kolzig says the onus is on Ovechkin himself to return to his old form.
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Posted On Tuesday, 02.14.2012 / 2:31 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Frustrated Knuble wants to play ... somewhere

ARLINGTON, Va. – Washington Capitals forward Mike Knuble says if he’s not part of the team’s immediate plans, then it might be best to send his talents elsewhere.

Knuble, 39, has been a healthy scratch in three straight games – all Washington losses – after going the previous 11 games without a point.

The eight-time 20-goal-scorer has three goals and 11 points in 53 games this season, having played primarily on Washington’s fourth line. He is also a team-worst minus-14.

“If a player is not going to be used,” Knuble said, “or in the near future you don’t have plans, then that player probably wouldn’t want to be there. That’s how we are in our League – you want to go somewhere where you’re going to play and contribute to your team and if you can’t do it in one place, then you’ve got to go.”

Capitals coach Dale Hunter would not say whether he plans on using Knuble this weekend when the Caps begin a four-game road trip with back-to-back games in Florida and Tampa Bay.

“He’s a leader, he’s a professional,” Hunter said of the Caps alternate captain. “We’re trying for more speed in the lineup and Mike can be professional about it and train hard out here so when [he] gets back in [he’s] ready to go and can show me that I made a mistake. That’s what I want.”

Knuble watched the Capitals fall Monday 5-3 to the San Jose Sharks while American Hockey League call-ups Joel Rechlicz earned a sweater. Rechlicz played just 90 seconds spread over two shifts.

“Everybody in here is a little bit frustrated with the way it’s been going lately,” Knuble said. “Then you throw this on top of things – you watch your team losing and all of that, it’s very frustrating.”

With the NHL trade deadline now 13 days away, Knuble was asked Tuesday if plans on formally requesting a trade.

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. I just kind of got through this weekend with three games in [five] nights – just wanted to get through it and see what [would] happen. Obviously we all saw what happened so it gets you thinking.

“We’re all competitive and we want to play and we all want to contribute. So if it’s not irritating you and you’re not thinking of your options then you may as well stop playing then.”
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Posted On Monday, 02.13.2012 / 12:48 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Neuvirth expects to earn second straight start

WASHINGTON -- Michal Neuvirth is expected to make his second straight start tonight when the Washington Capitals host the San Jose Sharks at Verizon Center (NBC Sports Network at 7:30).

With Tomas Vokoun suffering from the flu, Neuvirth was a last-minute addition to the Caps' starting lineup in yesterday's 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers.

Vokoun did not take part in Washington's optional skate this morning and Neuvirth (6-9-3, 3.07 goals-against average, .894 save percentage) told NHL.com he expects to start against San Jose. Coach Dale Hunter said that Vokoun remains a game-time decision and that there was no immediate plan for any call-ups.

"[Neuvirth] is a young guy," Hunter said, "and he wants to play as many games as he can. If he gets in tonight, he'll be ready to play."

Mike Knuble remained on the ice for extra work following Washington's optional skate and will likely be a healthy scratch for the third straight game.

The Caps enter tonight's game four points behind the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers and one point behind the eighth place Toronto Maple Leafs.

This will be the Capitals' final home game before embarking on a four-game road trip. Washington is tops in the Eastern Conference with a 19-7-2 record at home, but 14th in the conference on the road at 9-15-3.

The Sharks will be playing their second game in as many nights after falling 3-0 last night in St. Louis. San Jose allowed a pair of 5-on-3 power-play goals and a late goal on an empty net as it fell for the third time in four games.

Last night's loss also ended San Jose's streak of scoring at least one power-play goal in five straight games. The Sharks' power play enters tonight's game ranked fourth in the NHL at 20 percent.

"The message is going to be to stay out of the penalty box," Caps forward Matt Hendricks said. "Don't give these guys opportunities. If you need to take penalties, then you need to take penalties, but let's not be taking lazy penalties 200 feet from our end. I think that's probably going to be the message, and if they do get their opportunities, we have to do everything we can to shut them down -- blocking shots and getting pucks all the way down."

The Pacific Division-leading Sharks visit one point clear of second place Los Angeles, although San Jose has played four fewer games.

Thomas Greiss (7-4-1, 1.98 GAA, .925 save percentage) will make a rare start for the Sharks, who are playing the second game of their season-long nine-game, 16-day road trip.

Here are the Capitals' and Sharks' projected lineups for tonight's nationally televised game at Verizon Center:

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin - Marcus Johansson - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Brooks Laich - Joel Ward
Keith Aucoin - Jeff Halpern - Jay Beagle

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Roman Hamrlik
Jeff Schultz - Dennis Wideman

Michal Neuvirth
Tomas Vokoun

SHARKS

Ryan Clowe - Logan Couture - Benn Ferriero
Patrick Marleau - Joe Thornton - Joe Pavelski
Jamie McGinn - Michal Handzus - Torrey Mitchell
Brad Winchester - Andrew Desjardins - John McCarthy

Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Dan Boyle
Douglas Murray - Brent Burns
Colin White - Justin Braun

Thomas Greiss
Antti Niemi
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Posted On Saturday, 02.11.2012 / 1:49 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Caps' Backstrom feels he's improving, but return date unknown

ARLINGTON, Va. – Nicklas Backstrom spoke to local reporters Saturday for the first time since Jan.6, and while the Washington Capitals’ injured center says his condition is improving, there remains no timetable for his return.

Backstrom has been sidelined since Jan.3, when he took an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque. The 24-year-old will miss his 17th straight game Sunday when the Capitals visit the New York Rangers.

“It’s a long process but I’m getting better,” Backstrom said. “Obviously you want to be out there and playing with the team, but this is the situation now and you’ve got to deal with it.”

Backstrom told a Swedish newspaper last week that he was unsure when he might play again and that he hopes to be ready by the playoffs.

He said Saturday that he is working closely with head athletic trainer Greg Smith and trying to maintain his conditioning by riding a stationary bike. Skating he says, remains a challenge.

“Lately I’ve been doing the bike so I think I’m improving” he said. “The thing is, it takes time – but I’m on a good program now so hopefully I’ll get better soon.”

Backstrom has skated for just five minutes in the past 37 days – an attempt on Jan.23.

“I’m not 100-percent to skate now so we’ll see when it [will be] time to hit the ice [again],” he said. “Right now I’m taking it day-by-day.”

Despite missing the past 16 games, Backstrom is second on the Capitals with 42 points (13 goals; 29 assists), and he is second among Washington forwards averaging 19:10 TOI per game.

The Capitals are 7-6-3 since Backstrom’s injury and his absence has been particularly noteworthy on the Caps’ power play, which went 1-for-25 from Jan. 13-Feb.7.

One encouraging sign for the Capitals is Backstrom’s desire to be around his teammates.

After spending much of January recovering on his own, the past week saw Backstrom host a Super Bowl party for his teammates, attend home games at Verizon Center, and participate in the team’s annual Casino night/gala.  He is also travelling with the Caps for this weekend’s trip to New York.
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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 1:49 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Jets need offense, face Caps in critical division clash

WASHINGTON – The Winnipeg Jets will look to narrow the gap in the Southeast Division on Thursday night when they visit the first-place Washington Capitals at Verizon Center.

The Caps took over first place with a 4-0 win Tuesday against the Florida Panthers. Washington is one point clear of Florida and four points up on Winnipeg.

“It’s actually pretty close to the exact same thing we faced Tuesday,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “This is a team that is just behind us and if they win they’re going to be pretty close, but if we win we can really put some distance.”

Laich’s point is not lost on a Jets team that one year ago today was one point out of a playoff position. The Atlanta Thrashers struggled down the stretch though, winning 10 of their final 26 games before finishing 13 points out of a playoff berth.

“We don’t want to have that same lull that we had last year,” Jets forward Evander Kane said. “I think if you look at this last half of the month for us, it could be a deciding factor for our season and that starts here tonight… It’s a big game and we need the two points real bad.”

 Kane returned to the Jets lineup Tuesday in a 2-1 win over Toronto after missing seven games with a concussion.

The 20-year-old continues to lead Winnipeg with 18 goals despite going 11 straight games without finding the back of the net. Kane’s Winnipeg teammates haven’t done much better of late.

The Jets have scored just eight goals in their last seven games and have gone 0-for-17 on the power play during the stretch. Winnipeg is also last in the Eastern Conference, averaging 2.34 goals-per-game.

“It’s on the offensive side of the puck where our players have to get better,” Jets coach Claude Noel said. “I don’t think it’s so much a team thing, I think it’s an execution thing on the power play and from the standpoint of individual players I think there are a lot of people who would like to get going.”

Noel singled out former Capitals forward Eric Fehr among those he would like to see produce more. Fehr has one goal and one assist in 30 games this season.

“I’m hoping that he has enthusiasm in the game and I’m hoping that he wants some form of maybe redemption [playing against his former team tonight],” Noel said. “I’d like to see him create a little bit more offensively and get his shot off – we haven’t seen too much of that and I think it’s something we need to see more of.”
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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 11:26 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Knuble set to be healthy scratch for Caps against Jets

ARLINGTON, Va. -- A trying season for Capitals veteran Mike Knuble hit a new low this morning when he was told that he would be a healthy scratch tonight against the Winnipeg Jets.

Knuble, 39, has played in all 53 games this season, the majority of which have been spent on Washington's fourth line.

The eight-time 20-goal scorer has three goals and 11 points this season and is a team-worst minus-14.

Knuble has not scored since Dec. 5 -- a stretch of 27 games in which he has been held to just 3 assists -- and he skated a season-low 8:31 in a 4-1 loss Sunday afternoon to Boston.

With Knuble out, Jay Beagle returns to the lineup after sitting as a healthy scratch for five straight games.

"It's always hard to do but we put Beagle in for more speed," coach Dale Hunter said. "Mike hasn't scored in a while and we figured we'd get him up top to watch the game."

Knuble did not speak to reporters after staying on the ice for extra work this morning with fellow healthy scratch John Erskine and backup goalie Michal Neuvirth.

"We know that he's a team leader," Hunter said. "He worked hard out here [this morning] and that's what leadership is all about, but we wanted to add more team speed and he's the odd-man out."

Hunter said he expects Beagle to play just more than 10 minutes against Winnipeg, including ice time on the Caps' penalty kill.

Beagle will skate on the fourth line alongside Keith Aucoin and Brooks Laich. Aucoin will play in his fourth straight game since being recalled from Hershey of the American Hockey League last week, while Laich remains limited after suffering a left knee injury Sunday.

Laich skated a season-low 9:28 in a 4-0 win Tuesday against Florida.
 
Here are the Capitals' and Jets' projected lineups for a key Southeast Division meeting at Verizon Center:
 
CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin - Marcus Johansson - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward
Brooks Laich - Keith Aucoin - Jay Beagle
 
Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Roman Hamrlik
Jeff Schultz - Dennis Wideman
 
Tomas Vokoun
Michal Neuvirth
 
JETS
Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Blake Wheeler
Evander Kane - Nik Antropov - Eric Fehr
Tanner Glass - Jim Slater - Chris Thorburn
Alexander Burmistrov - Aaron Gagnon - Antti Miettinen
 
Tobias Enstrom - Dustin Byfuglien
Ron Hainsey - Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart - Johnny Oduya
 
Ondrej Pavelec
Chris Mason


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Posted On Friday, 01.13.2012 / 12:20 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Vokoun back in net for Caps vs. Lightning

WASHINGTON -- Tomas Vokoun will make his eighth straight start tonight as the Capitals continue their four-game homestand against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Caps have won five straight at Verizon Center and own the second-best home record in the Eastern Conference at 15-5-1.

Nicklas Backstrom will miss his fourth straight game after taking an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flame Rene Bourque Jan. 3.

Mike Green also will miss his third straight game after aggravating his previously injured groin last Saturday in San Jose. Green has missed 25 of the past 27 games and was placed on long-term injured reserve yesterday. He is not eligible to return until Feb.1 at the earliest.

With Green placed on LTIR, forward prospect Cody Eakin was recalled from AHL Hershey and will be in the lineup tonight. Eakin has 3 goals and 6 points in 20 NHL games this season.

Defenseman Tomas Kundratek also is expected back in Washington's lineup after making his NHL debut in Wednesday's 1-0 win against Pittsburgh.

The Capitals and Lightning haven't played since Washington's 6-5 shootout win Oct. 10; they'll meet five times in the second half of the season.

The top two teams in the Southeast Division a year ago enter play Friday fighting for a playoff position. The Caps begin the day tied eighth in the Eastern Conference, eight points clear of the 13th-place Lightning.

The Lightning still are seeking their first win of 2012, having gone 0-4-1 since a 5-2 win against Carolina on New Year's Eve.

Steven Stamkos remains the NHL's goal-scoring leader, with 29 in 42 games, but the Bolts have allowed a league-worst 3.40 goals per game.

Here is the lineup for both teams; the Capitals had a morning skate, while the Lightning, after playing Carolina last night, opted against skating today. Tampa dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen last night, so their forward lines lacked real consistency.

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin - Marcus Johansson - Alexander Semin
Mike Knuble - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Matt Hendricks - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward
Jason Chimera - Cody Eakin - Jay Beagle

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Dennis Wideman
Roman Hamrlik - Tomas Kundratek

Tomas Vokoun will make his eighth straight start in net, with Michal Neuvirth the backup.

Forward Mathieu Perreault and defensemen John Erskine and Jeff Schultz will be scratched.

LIGHTNING
Tom Pyatt - Vincent Lecavalier - Steve Downie
Martin St. Louis - Steven Stamkos - Brett Connolly
Ryan Malone - Dominic Moore - Teddy Purcell
Dana Tyrell - Nate Thompson   

Marc-Andre Bergeron - Matt Gilroy
Brett Clark - Bruno Gervais
Eric Brewer - Pavel Kubina
Brendan Mikkelson

With Mathieu Garon starting last night, it's likely he'll back-up Dwayne Roloson tonight.
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Posted On Tuesday, 12.20.2011 / 3:20 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Neuvirth in net for offensively-struggling Capitals

WASHINGTON -- Mike Knuble will skate in his 1,000th career game Tuesday night when the Washington Capitals play host to the Nashville Predators at Verizon Center.

The Capitals will honor Knuble prior to the opening faceoff and all Caps players will wear jerseys with the No.22 in warmups. The jerseys will later be auctioned off for charity.

“I didn’t really know that until I was on Twitter last night,” Knuble said of his teammates plan to sport his jersey number. “I saw it on Twitter … I know my wife has been up to things behind the scenes a little bit so you just roll with what happens. I think that’s very nice. It’s a great chance to play this game in Washington as a Capital. I’m very happy with that and it will be flattering when you see the guys on the ice.”

Knuble has scored at least 20 goals in eight straight seasons – a streak that could come to an end in April. Through 31 games this season, Knuble has three goals and nine points while skating primarily on Washington’s fourth line.

While Knuble’s offensive numbers may be down, he expects to have an extra jump in his step tonight with plenty of friends and family taking in game No. 1,000.

“It’s a fun day, just try to enjoy the day,” Knuble said. “There’s still a game to play and I guess there will be some talk and fun before the game, but once the puck drops the game is on and you move on. Tomorrow I anticipate waking up and everything [will be] back to normal but today is a fun day and it’s a day you should enjoy as a player.”

The Predators enter play Tuesday having won seven of 10 games and five straight overall. Their last 10 games have also all been decided by one goal.

The Capitals are 4-5-0 since Dale Hunter took over as coach Nov. 28, but continue to struggle offensively. Washington has scored just once in each of its last three games.

Michal Neuvirth is expected to make his third straight start for the Caps, while backup Anders Lindback gets the nod for Nashville.

Here are the projected lineups for both teams:

CAPITALS

Alex OvechkinBrooks LaichTroy Brouwer
Marcus JohanssonNicklas BackstromAlexander Semin
Jason ChimeraBrooks LaichJoel Ward
Matt HendricksMathieu PerreaultMike Knuble

Karl AlznerJohn Carlson
John ErskineDennis Wideman
Dmitry OrlovRoman Hamrlik

Michal Neuvirth
Tomas Vokoun

PREDATORS

Martin EratDavid LegwandCraig Smith
Sergei KostitsynMike FisherPatric Hornqvist
Colin WilsonNick SpalingJordin Tootoo
Matt HalischukBlake GeoffrionJerred Smithson

Ryan SuterShea Weber
Francis Bouillon – Jonathan Blum
Jack HillenRoman Josi

Anders Lindback
Pekka Rinne
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Posted On Saturday, 09.17.2011 / 7:39 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Super Saturday

Caps Camp: Baltimore trip holds memories for Boudreau

The Capitals will travel up I-95 Tuesday when they open the preseason against the Nashville Predators as part of the Baltimore Hockey Classic. The Caps last played in Charm City in 1992.

"It's unique that we're sold out for every [home] game this year," Caps general manager George McPhee said, "and now we can go up to Baltimore for a Tuesday night preseason against a non-conference team and sell that building out."

More than 11,000 fans are expected at Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena, which housed the American Hockey League's Skipjacks from 1982-93 and later the AHL's Bandits from 1995-97.

Tuesday's game is sure to bring back memories for both Predators coach Barry Trotz and Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. Trotz was the coach in Baltimore in 1992-93 when the Skipjacks were a Capitals affiliate and Boudreau played for a Skipjacks team that reached the 1985 Calder Cup final.

"We went to the finals and we lost against a guy by the name of Patrick Roy," Boudreau recalled on the first day of Capitals training camp.

"The team in Sherbrooke that beat us, I think nine of those guys ended up graduating to the Canadiens the next year and won the Stanley Cup, so there were a lot of good Montreal Canadiens that beat us the last year I played there."

Boudreau remembers the Skipjacks drawing crowds of 5,000 on their championship run, which were "adequate at the time for the American League."

Among Boudreau's teammates in Baltimore were future NHLers Andy Brickley, Marty McSorley, Phil Bourque, Bob Errey and John Casey. 

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Posted On Saturday, 09.17.2011 / 5:54 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Super Saturday

Capitals Camp: Hamrlik held back as precaution

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Free agent signee Roman Hamrlik did not complete the Capitals' mandatory conditioning test on the first day of training camp because of tightness in his groin.

"I wanted to be safe," Hamrlik said. "It was a hard practice and I had some tightness in my groin. It was a good move by Bruce."

Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said he was being "overly cautious" with his 38-year-old defenseman, who did take part in practic

"I just said ‘Hey listen, I don't want you to do this,'" Boudreau said of his conversation with Hamrlik. ‘"Let's be precautionary. We'll do the test in a week when you feel better.'"

Hamrlik arrived in D.C. on Wednesday after spending the first two weeks of September skating with his former teammates in Montreal.

"When you get older everything is harder for you," he said. "I have a few weeks to get in better shape and be ready for the season."

Hamrlik has proven durable during his career, appearing in at least 75 games in each of the past five seasons. He was also a minutes-eater in Montreal and led the Canadiens in time on ice last season.

"I wanted to make sure that - on his first day out with us - that he wasn't trying to be overly brave and do something," Boudreau said. "Once he said, they're a little tight, I said, 'OK, fine, shut it down.' "

Hamrlik plans to return to practice tomorrow.
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Posted On Saturday, 09.17.2011 / 5:49 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Super Saturday

Capitals Camp: Poti fails physical; Wideman, Green healthy

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Capitals general manager George McPhee confirmed on Day One of training that defenseman Tom Poti did not pass his physical. The 34-year-old remains sidelined with a groin injury that limited him to just 21 games last season. Poti will begin the year on long-term injured reserve.

"He failed the medical but we'll try a different program to see if we can get him back to a hundred percent," McPhee said. "He's worked really hard in trying to get ready and he's still unable to do it. We'll see if the new program works. If he can play at some point this year, he would help us a lot."

McPhee did not elaborate on the new program, but said that it would not include surgery. Poti's inability to begin the season comes as no big shock after McPhee suggested at last year's exit meetings that the defenseman's career "could be in jeopardy."

"I was concerned whether he'd be able to play again," McPhee said. "It's why we went out and signed [Roman] Hamrlik. We didn't want to be short. Unfortunately, he's no further along."

If Poti is indeed placed on LTIR, it will relieve the Capitals of his $2.875 million salary cap hit. Poti signed a two-year extension during last year's training camp that is for this campaign and next. He was not made available for comment.

"I met with him yesterday and he's certainly frustrated and we're disappointed because he's a good player," McPhee said. "He played very good hockey and made us better."

While Poti remains sidelined, other Washington defensemen are chomping at the bit to return from their own injuries.

Dennis Wideman missed the final five games of the regular-season and all of the playoffs with a leg hematoma. Wideman now sports a six-inch scar above his knee but the 28-year-old says he's good to suit up in the pre-season.

"As far as the practice went, I felt pretty good," Wideman said. "When we got to the conditioning I felt like I was a little bit behind where I would like to be at this point. But the good news is we still have a couple more weeks… As far as strength and skating go, I'm 100 percent."

Wideman was acquired from the Panthers at last year's trade deadline, but the offensive-minded defenseman never had the chance to play with Mike Green.

Green missed the final 19 games of the regular-season with a concussion and Game 4 of the Capitals second round series against Tampa Bay with a hip flexor.

The two-time Norris Trophy nominee had an off-year by his standards with eight goals and 24 points -- his lowest totals since he was a rookie in 2006-07.

But with Wideman and Green both healthy, and John Carlson set to begin his second full NHL season, expectations are high for the Capitals' puck-moving defensemen.
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Posted On Saturday, 09.17.2011 / 3:35 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Super Saturday

Capitals Camp: Search for No. 2 center continues

ARLINGTON, Va. -- When Sergei Fedorov left the NHL to play in his native Russia after the 2008-09 season, he also left the Capitals with a big vacancy. Two years later, the search for a second-line center continues in Washington.

"I've given a lot of thought to it," Coach Bruce Boudreau said, "and it will probably clear itself up next week. We'll probably experiment a little bit in the first three pre-season games with positions and stuff."

Since Fedorov's departure, the Caps revolving No. 2 center position has been filled by Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger, Tomas Fleischmann, Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault and Jason Arnott.
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Posted On Saturday, 09.17.2011 / 1:29 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Super Saturday

Capitals Camp: Ovechkin: "No more excuses"

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin's Sept. 1 arrival in D.C., his earliest to start the season since his rookie year, was one of many signs in the weeks leading up to training camp that things would be different this year.

As camp opened this morning, a new attitude surrounds this Capitals bunch, regular-season darlings for four years with wins in only two playoff rounds to show for their efforts.

"When guys are younger you give them a little more leeway for mistakes on and off the ice," said veteran Mike Knuble, entering his third season with the Caps. "You have to live with some errors on the ice and you live with some errors off the ice -- you put up with guys being late, figuring stuff out, not being on-time, but that was erased last year for the most part and I expect this year will be even tighter."
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Posted On Saturday, 09.17.2011 / 10:36 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - Super Saturday

Capitals Camp: No Poti for the Caps this morning

ARLINGTON, VA -- Twenty-two Capitals, including six defensemen, have taken to the ice for Washington's first on-ice session of training camp. Tom Poti is not among them.

The 34-year-old defenseman was among the 23 players listed in 'Group A' but it comes as little surprise that he is not on the ice.

Poti was limited to just 21 games last season due to nagging groin injuries and general manager George McPhee suggested at the team's exit meetings last May that Poti's career "could be in jeopardy."

Poti signed a two-year extension last September -- a deal that starts this season and comes with $2.875 annual salary cap hit -- but McPhee operated this summer as though Poti would not start the campaign.
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