Tuesday, March 25, 2008
The Caps are in Carolina for a big game against the Canes. Both teams have six games remaining in the regular season, and the Hurricanes hold a five-point lead (87-82) over the Caps in the Southeast Division standings. A Carolina win would all but doom any hopes of the Caps overtaking the Hurricanes for the Southeast crown.
Coming off a huge comeback win over the Thrashers in Atlanta on Friday, the Caps now face another three-game road trip with visits to Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida followed by a three-game, season-ending homestand against the same three teams in the same order.
In Friday's win over the Thrashers, the Caps poured 45 shots on the Atlanta net and were able to overcome longtime netminding nemesis Kari Lehtonen. But they face a similarly daunting task in Raleigh, going up against Cam Ward. We wrote about that challenge in the original iteration of the Dump 'n Chase blog:
In Raleigh tonight, the Capitals play their biggest game of the year against division rival Carolina, a team that gave them a 6-3 thumping on their last visit here on Feb. 23. A loss tonight ends any hope of a Southeast Division title for Washington.
They'll face a Carolina team that has won four straight at home, a Carolina team that is 14-3-1 in its last 18 games, and a Carolina team that has averaged 3.56 goals per game (Ottawa leads the league with 3.16 goals per game on the season) over its last 18 games, despite missing four of its top six forwards (Rod Brind'Amour, Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney and Justin Williams) at the moment.
And they'll face Cam Ward.
A few days back we spent some time discussing the trouble the Caps had been having with Atlanta goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Those woes pale in comparison to facing Ward, who is on the Martin Brodeur Path of Capitals Dominance career path.
This is Ward's third season in the league. He is 10-3 with three shutouts, a 2.50 goals against average and a .916 save pct. against Washington in his career. This season, Ward is 4-0 with a shutout, a 1.75 goals against average and a .949 save pct. against the Caps.
I asked Bruce Boudreau about Lehtonen before the Atlanta game, and the Caps broke the hex. If it works, don't fix it, so I asked him about Ward this morning. (I'm not superstitious; just a little stitious.)
"He's good," says the Caps bench boss. "I don't know anything about goaltending except the ones that stop the pucks. When he is on top of his game, he's not giving up rebounds. He's squaring up very similar to a lot of goalies. You can tell he has been on his game for the last [while]. This is the [15th] game in a row he has started and their record speaks for itself. He had one bad game in Buffalo. Other than that, he has been airtight.
Then Boudreau laid out the formula for success.
"We know we're going to have to get traffic in front of the net. We're going to have to drive to the net and have two or three guys getting second and third shots to beat him. That's what they do. That's exactly how they win. Their guys are attacking nets with a voracious appetite these days. They get the second and third shots and they're willing to pay the price and they've been successful doing it."
In other words, play the way they played in the third period in Atlanta on Friday.
Washington's last win over Ward was on Jan. 27, 2007 at Verizon Center. He has defeated them six times since. The Caps have defeated Ward in Carolina only once, back on Mar. 29, 2006 when they triumphed, 5-1. Matt Bradley scored twice in that game, Alex Ovechkin netted his 48th of the season on a Washington power play, Chris Clark scored shorthanded and Brian Willsie had the other goal.
In going 6-0 in his last six starts against the Caps, Ward has allowed just five even strength goals in those six games. That brings us to the other important aspect of tonight's game: special teams.
Washington is 12-for-41 (29.3%) with the extra man in its last 10 games, despite going 0-for-6 on the power play in its last two games. Carolina's much-maligned penalty killing unit is out of last place and now ranks 29th in the league. In their last 11 games, the Hurricanes have killed off 39 of 42 (92.9%) opposition power play chances.
On the other side of that special teams spectrum, the Caps have surrendered at least one power play goal in each of their last four games, matching their longest streak of that kind this season. Carolina's extra-man unit is 12th in the league this season, but it has been clicking at a 22% pace over the last dozen games.
What's even more alarming is that the Canes have had 68 power play chances in those last 12 games. (For comparison's sake, the Capitals have had 49 chances of their own in their last 12 games, and Carolina has only had to kill 46 opposition power plays in the last 12 games.) If the Caps are faced with having to kill five or six or seven Carolina power plays tonight, it could get ugly. The Canes were 4-for-7 on the power play against Washington the last time the Caps played here on Feb. 23.
"I think special teams against these guys are really important, as well as anybody," says Boudreau. "But they scored four [power play goals] against us last time. Obviously we have to do something to be able to defend that. We can't allow that to happen. At this time of year 5-on-5 everybody plays so tight, and everybody plays a little bit more defensively than they would normally. So special teams become even more paramount in the whole scheme of things.
"We know we have to beat them 5-on-4. Hopefully we win that battle. Usually if we anticipate a close game and you win the special teams battle by a goal, it may make the difference."
March 25 versus Carolina Hurricanes at RBC Center
Time: 7:00 pm
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: 3WT 1500AM, 820 AM and 107.7 FM
Washington Capitals (37-31-8)
Carolina Hurricanes (41-30-5)
Just over a month ago, the Caps left Carolina on the short end of a 6-3 score, a loss that put Washington six points behind the Hurricanes in the race for the Southeast Division crown. On Tuesday, the Caps return to Raleigh five points behind the Canes and hoping to shave the deficit to three with a regulation win.
The Capitals hit Carolina on the heels of an inspiring 5-3 win over the Thrashers in Atlanta on Friday night. Washington trailed 3-1 entering the game's final 20 minutes, but rallied to pour 23 shots at beleaguered Atlanta netminder Kari Lehtonen. Four of them (including a late empty-netter) found the back of the net, including Alex Ovechkin's 60th of the season and a pair from rookie Nicklas Backstrom.
With the win, the Caps stayed within shouting distance of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Washington trails eighth place Boston by two points.
Washington still holds out hope of a division crown, but if it doesn't knock off the Hurricanes in Raleigh on Tuesday, that possibility will dry up.
"Carolina just happens to be the next opponent," says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, "and I know they're going to want to win because they can pretty well clinch our division if they win [Tuesday] night. That will be a big motivating factor and we want to deny that."
Tuesday's tilt with the Hurricanes begins the back three of a six-game road swing that will conclude the Caps' regular season road slate for 2007-08. Washington went 2-1 on the first half of the tour and will probably need to duplicate that mark on the last half of the trip. The Capitals are 17-16-5 away from the District this season, and have a shot at their first winning record on the road since they went 18-17-6 in 1995-96
"I don't think that's a number we're really worried about," says Boudreau, "but it's a number that's going to have to get done if we want to be where we want to be. I don't think guys are going to be doing cartwheels over finishing over .500 on the road, but we will be pretty excited if we come away with a good road trip."
If the Caps can bottle the way they played for the final 20 minutes in Atlanta and pour it out for the next nine periods, they've got a good shot at running the table on the road.
"We saw what happened when we played the way we can play," states right wing Matt Bradley. "We played our system as well as we can play it. Everyone worked hard on the forecheck and we saw what happened: 23 shots and four goals. It just shows us that when we play the way we're capable of playing, we're a pretty strong team."
The Caps got pucks in deep, they forechecked hard, they put pressure on the Atlanta defense, and they converged around the Thrashers' net.
"I think if you saw the emotion in the game in Atlanta whether the guy scored or whether everybody on the bench for the last two minutes was standing up, you know that they're a bunch of guys that want to win," says Boudreau. "They want to play for each other, and they're learning how. It's not an overnight thing, but they're going to do everything in their power to continue playing in April. I expect them to play as hard as they can [Tuesday] night."
It's hard to sustain that sort of tempo for three periods of 82 games, but the Caps just need to do it for three periods of one game, six times.
"No one is going to be like that every game," admits Bradley, "but we're getting to the part of the season where you have to be like that every game. In October and November you can get away with some off games, but this time of year you can't. We have to play the rest of the games the way we played that third period."
Washington's power play ranks sixth in the league with a 19.4% success rate. The Caps are 25th in the circuit in penalty killing with a kill rate of 80.4%
Many media pundits openly scratched their heads when Carolina swapped Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore - two key cogs from their 2006 Stanley Cup championship team - to Ottawa for younger players (defenseman Joe Corvo and winger Patrick Eaves) with years remaining on their contracts.
Many of those same pundits left the Hurricanes for dead days later when team captain and face-off whiz Rod Brind'Amour was lost for the season because of a knee injury. The Hurricanes started the season 11-4-1, but they've been even better recently.
Ever since a humiliating 6-1 loss in New Jersey on Feb. 9 sparked a team meeting, the Hurricanes have torn through their schedule. Carolina's subsequent 14-3-1 surge has effectively papered over a mediocre three-month stretch in the middle of the season.
Carolina netminder and 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cam Ward figures to be in goal; he has made 14 straight starts. He'll face Washington's Cristobal Huet. Ward is a Washington nemesis; he is 10-3 with three shutouts lifetime against the Caps. Washington has defeated the Canes twice this season, but it has yet to defeat Ward in 2007-08. He is 4-0 with a shutout, a 1.75 goals against average and a gaudy .949 save pct. against the Capitals this season.
Ward has won each of his last six decisions against Washington. The Caps last prevailed against the Hurricanes' netminder in a 7-3 win at Verizon Center on Jan. 27, 2007. Washington's only win ever against Ward at Raleigh's RBC Center came nearly two years ago on Mar. 29, 2006. The Caps earned a 5-1 win that night.
Carolina's power play is the league's 12th best with a 17.9% conversion rate. The Hurricanes are next-to-last in the league in penalty killing with a 78.4% kill rate.
Fun Fact: Carolina blueliners have accounted for just 16 goals this season, and recent acquisition Joe Corvo has five of those tallies. Corvo has six goals and 15 points in 17 games with the Hurricanes. He has a dozen goals and 42 points on the season.
If not for the acquisition of Corvo, Carolina would be the only team in the NHL without a 20-point defenseman on its team. Take Corvo off the roster and Frantisek Kaberle (no goals, 19 assists) is the leading scorer among Hurricanes defensemen.
Despite playing in just 17 games, Corvo is tied for third among Canes defensemen in scoring and is only four points off the lead.
Defenseman Dennis Seidenberg is day-to-day for personal reasons.
Defenseman David Tanabe has a concussion and is out indefinitely.
Center Rod Brind'Amour has a knee injury and is out for the season.
Center Matt Cullen has post-concussion symptoms and is out indefinitely.
Right wing Justin Williams has torn knee ligaments and is out indefinitely.
Left wing Ray Whitney underwent leg surgery and is out 2-3 weeks.
Left wing Chad LaRose has a broken leg and is out indefinitely.
Defenseman Brian Pothier has an upper body injury and is day-to-day.
Defenseman John Erskine has an upper body injury and is day-to-day.
Right wing Chris Clark has a groin injury and is day-to-day.
Center Michael Nylander underwent rotator cuff surgery and is out 3-6 months.
Center David Steckel has a broken finger and is out 2-3 weeks.
Possible Line Combos and Defensive Pairings
14-Samsonov, 12-Staal, 26-Cole
18-Bayda, 37-Aucoin, 24-Walker
28-Brookbank, 51-Hamilton, 38-Conboy
15-Ruutu, 19-Letowski, 44-Eaves
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 25-Kozlov
28-Semin, 91-Fedorov, 14-Fehr
43-Fleischmann, 21-Laich, 24-Cooke
87-Brashear, 15-Gordon, 10-Bradley