Coming off of a five-day gap in between games, the Carolina Hurricanes will host Metropolitan Division rival Washington Capitals at PNC Arena, marking the third time the two teams have met this season.
The Canes have claimed victories in the first two meetings, as they topped the Caps 3-2 on Oct. 10 and 4-1 on Dec. 3, both in Washington, DC.
“Both games we played really hard against them. We didn’t give them any space out there, and that’s what we have to do tonight,” said forward Jiri Tlusty, who notched a goal in the recent 4-1 win. “We know that if we play well with everyone skating hard, we’ll have success against them.”
In the team’s last meeting, defenseman Brett Bellemore absorbed a hard hit from Capitals rookie Tom Wilson, who was recently in the news for his hit on Brayden Schenn of the Philadelphia Flyers. Bellemore left the game and did not return and has missed the team’s last six games. Suffering a bit of whiplash from the hit which he said he didn’t have time to brace himself for, he was diagnosed with a concussion, the first of his career.
“He’ll just play his game. He’s a big body, and they’ve got a big team, so we just chose to go with a bigger defensive corps,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “He’s been anxious to get in, and he’s all healed up.”
Bellemore ranks second on the team and second among all NHL rookies in hits with 82, and Muller expects him to bring that element back to the table. Bellemore will be paired with Ron Hainsey.
“They’re a nice balance,” Muller said. “Hainsey is a good skater and a good puck-moving defenseman. Bellemore is the more stay-at-home, get-in-your-face type of defensemen. Sometimes chemistry just connects for whatever reason, and they’ve had good chemistry since we’ve put them together this year.
“His (Bellemore) focus will be his first game back in awhile. He just wants to get back playing,” Muller continued. “He needs to keep the game simple, and he knows that. We’ll look for him to play a good, solid game.”
With Bellemore drawing back into the lineup, Ryan Murphy will sit as a healthy scratch. Mike Komisarek, activated off injured reserve today, will also be a healthy extra.
Aside from being red-hot in general as of late, Jeff Skinner is also red-hot against the Capitals this season, in part due to his three-point performance (2g, 1a) on Dec. 3. Additionally, in the team’s first meeting, Skinner posted a pair of assists. In 18 career games against the Caps, Skinner has four goals and 10 assists and is a plus-1.
Kevin Westgarth will be the team’s healthy extra up front with Elias Lindholm already on his way to Sweden for the World Junior Championship.
After riding Justin Peters in net in the team’s last two games, the Canes will turn to Cam Ward, who last started in Edmonton on Dec. 10. In 32 career games against Washington, Ward is 16-11-4 with a 2.54 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and four shutouts.
“Just going on a gut feeling,” Muller said. “He had a good five days to really focus on his game. He’s a leader of this group. Tonight is a big game, and a lot of those times, you look to your veteran guys to have big games in big games. We’re showing that we have confidence in him, and we’re giving him the opportunity to start tonight.”
The Hurricanes enter tonight’s game trailing Washington by four points in the standings. The Canes were leapfrogged by Philadelphia last night for the third place in the Metropolitan Division, but a win tonight would vault Carolina back into playoff position.
“We have to play hard like we did on the road and try to come out of the gate in the first and set the tone. It’s a big game,” Tlusty said. “The locker room is excited about it, and we know the deal.”
“Every game is huge right now,” Muller said. “You can’t let off. You have to be consistent and grab points every night, whether it’s one or two. It’s one thing to play well, but when you’re playing well, you have to grab those points. Divisional games are so important, but the way the league is now … every night you play you have to find a way to win a hockey game.”