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Arnott injury will further test Caps' center depth

by Arpon Basu
MONTREAL -- The Washington Capitals will be without a major catalyst to their current eight-game winning streak when they look to extend it Tuesday night against the Montreal Canadiens.

Jason Arnott did not make the trip north with his teammates and Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau described his status as "week to week" with an undisclosed injury, ruling him out for at least the next three games.

Considering the Capitals are a sparkling 7-0-0 since Arnott was acquired from New Jersey at the trade deadline in exchange for center David Steckel and a second-round pick, Boudreau was asked how his team will be affected by his absence.

"I don't know, we'll find out how much it's going to hurt us," Boudreau said. "He has had an impact and we'll miss him, but like any other team we'll carry on."

The loss of Arnott could very well be countered by the possible return of first-line center Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed the last three games with a left thumb injury. Backstrom took part in Tuesday's morning skate, and Boudreau said he will be a game-time decision.

Arnott has been playing the point on the power play, a unit that has three goals on its last nine chances, but he's also had an overall impact in cementing the shifting identity of the Capitals from a run-and-gun offensive machine to one with much more than a passing interest in playing sound defensive hockey.

"Jason's been really steady for us, he's the big No. 2 center that we've needed," forward Mike Knuble said. "Nick's obviously the No. 1 guy, but Jason can check, he can play both ends of the ice and he's preaching a very conservative game. That's good, that's what we need."

It may be a coincidence, but since Arnott has arrived rookie center Marcus Johansson has matched his best stretch of the season with 4 points in his last five games. He's also topped 18 minutes of ice time twice in the three games Backstrom has missed, matching the two games in which he did that through his first 54 games played of the season.

If Backstrom is unable to go Tuesday night, Johansson will be looked at to carry a much larger role in light of Arnott's absence.

"A lot of us didn't see it coming," he said. "He's had a great impact on the team so far, and we're going to need him when he comes back. Every guy needs to step up a little bit now because he's a big guy and he plays with big responsibilities. It's a good test for all the other players."

The Canadiens will be missing defenseman Brent Sopel, who remains out with a reported broken hand. He will be replaced by Paul Mara on the third pairing and the second wave of the penalty kill, while Yannick Weber will get his turn Tuesday night in the place of Alexandre Picard as the revolving door continues to twirl at Montreal's sixth spot on defense.

Michael Cammalleri, who missed practice Monday with an illness, was back on the ice Tuesday morning and will be in uniform.
The goaltending matchup has Capitals rookie Braden Holtby looking for his fifth straight win against Carey Price, who has a 5-1-0 record with two shutouts, a 1.17 goals against average and .965 save percentage in his six starts in March.

An interesting side note to this contest is that the Capitals will be at the Bell Centre for the first time since Game 6 of last year's first round playoff series against Montreal, one where former Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak made 53 saves to force a deciding seventh game in Washington that the Capitals ultimately lost.

To a man, the Capitals said the memories of that game were not the least but rekindled as they skated on Bell Centre ice Tuesday morning.

Still, that playoff loss has had a big impact on how the Capitals have changed the way they play the game, with an emphasis on two-way play over the loose offensive style that may have cost them against Montreal last spring.

"I think overall we're a much more confident team when the game is on the line and just getting really used to playing in tight games," Knuble said. "That's how playoff hockey's going to be."
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