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:
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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:
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.
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."
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:
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.
"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."
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."
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."
You could see out there that everybody was willing to compete, to sacrifice, even blocking shots to the end. Even in the third when we were up 5-0, guys were still working hard and blocking shots That's a nice feeling also for the future.
— Flames goalie Jonas Hiller after his team's 5-0 win over Carolina