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Round 2
Round 3
Stanley Cup Final
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."
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."

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.
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:

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

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.
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:


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

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.

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."

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.”
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.

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.
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.

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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It means a lot to us, we're very excited. We're looking to continue to build on [our] top core talent of young players. It's just a great opportunity for us to really build high.

— Panthers vice president of hockey operations Travis Viola after Florida won the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft Lottery