April 9 vs. Buffalo Sabres at Key Bank Center
Time: 7 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
Washington Capitals 25-11-4
Buffalo Sabres 9-24-6
The Caps finish up a set of back-to-back games and open a brief two-game road trip on Friday night in Buffalo against the Sabres. Friday's game is the final meeting between the two teams in Buffalo this season; the Sabres visit the District for the final time next Thursday night.
The Caps come into Friday's game on the heels of a 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Thursday, their first and only game at home following a five-game road trip. The loss to Boston is Washington's fourth in its last six games.
Following a troubling recent pattern, the Caps were slow out of the starting gates in Thursday's loss. It was the third straight slow start for Washington, but the first time in those three games that the Caps faced a deficit after 20 minutes of play.
Boston outshot the Caps 17-8 in the first, out-attempted them 21-8 at 5-on-5 and forged a 2-0 lead with a pair of even-strength tallies, the only even-strength goals of the game. Although they rebounded to play better over the final 40 minutes, the deficit proved to be too much for the Caps to overcome.
Brad Marchand's shorthanded goal made it a 3-0 game early in the second, and the Caps climbed back into the contest with a pair of 5-on-3 power-play goals - from Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie - just 19 seconds apart midway through the middle frame. But that was as close as they would get to the Bruins, who iced the game with a Craig Smith power-play goal with 3:05 remaining in the third.
During Washington's recent hot spell in which it won 17 of 21 games, it was stellar at 5-on-5 play at both ends of the ice. But during the last half dozen games or so, the Caps have been inconsistent from period to period, and coach Peter Laviolette took note of his team's struggles in the neutral zone in the wake of Thursday's loss.
"It's a decision thing," says Laviolette. "It's a gray area, that you're coming through the neutral zone and you want teams to enter with possession, but yet you want more than that for them to make the right decision. And the games that we have not played well, we've not gotten to the offensive zone. We're spending too much time playing defense, and the chances show up that way as well.
"And then the second period tonight, we made a decision to do that, to put it behind them, to play in the offensive zone. And then all of a sudden everything turns around - shots turn around, the chances turn around. We didn't score at 5-on-5 in the second period, but we had lots of looks and lots of opportunities, and goals will come with those looks and opportunities, but you've got to get there. Our unwillingness to do it, it's something that we've been talking about for probably six games. And so it's got to get cleaner, and it's got to get better through there."
They'll get their next chance to get cleaner and better on Friday night against the Sabres. Washington has had success against Buffalo this season, winning five of the six games they've played to date this season and picking up a point in a Jan. 24 shootout loss. Most recently, the Caps took a 6-0 win here on March 15, getting goals from six different skaters and a 23-save effort from Vitek Vanecek in net in what is thus far Washington's lone shutout win of the season.
"It's pretty simple. I think you combine all of those little messages that we've said, get a good start and take care of business," says Caps defenseman John Carlson. "It's never easy in back-to-back games, but we need to start bouncing back. There is not much real estate left in the season, so these games mean a lot no matter who we play. We've got some big ones coming down the stretch and it's just as important [Friday]."
While Washington was taking a home ice loss on Thursday night, the Sabres were doing the same in Buffalo. After jumping out to an early 1-0 lead over the New Jersey Devils at Key Bank Center, the Sabres gave up three unanswered goals - including a pair of Pavel Zacha power-play markers - in the first, so like the Caps, they entered the second looking up at a two-goal deficit.
Buffalo bounced back with a pair of goals in the middle frame to tie it, but again yielded three unanswered New Jersey tallies in the third to fall 6-3. The loss ended the Sabres' run of five straight games with a point (3-0-2).