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Back in first, Caps deal with Southeast rival Canes

by Brian Hunter
CAPITALS (25-18-2) at HURRICANES (16-24-8)


Last 10:
Washington 7-3-0; Carolina 4-4-2

Season Series:
Fourth of six meetings between these Southeast Division rivals. The Capitals have taken the first three, including a decisive 5-1 win in the previous game played at the RBC Center on Nov. 4. Nicklas Backstrom (1-3-4) and Alex Ovechkin (0-4-4) are the scoring leaders for Washington, matched by Jeff Skinner (0-4-4) for Carolina.

Big Story:
Washington's shutout of Montreal on Wednesday combined with Florida blowing a two-goal, third-period lead and getting only a point in an overtime loss to Colorado allowed the Capitals to regain the Southeast lead by virtue of the second tiebreaker, more regulation and OT wins. Finishing first may turn out to be key -- while both teams currently have 52 points, the Caps find themselves the Eastern Conference's third seed entering Friday's play while the Panthers are in eighth, with the Maple Leafs closing in on them.

Team Scope:

Blanked on home ice by the Islanders just 24 hours earlier, Washington turned the tables quickly and put up a goose egg of its own in Montreal on Wednesday night. Making his first start since Dec. 26, when he gave up three goals on six shots and was pulled against the Sabres, Michal Neuvirth delivered a flawless, 31-save performance in the Capitals' 3-0 victory. Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson scored in the first 10 minutes and Ovechkin added a power-play goal in the second.

"I just shook his hand," forward Brooks Laich said of Neuvirth. "I thought Michal was exceptional. He was a vacuum. He sucked everything in. He made the saves, he covered the rebounds, he kicked things to the corner. He was tremendous. I thought Michal was great."

The return of Skinner, last season's Calder Trophy winner, to the Carolina lineup hasn't kick-started the offense just yet. The Hurricanes have scored just a single goal in each of his first two games back, including a loss in Washington on Sunday. Skinner picked up his first point since Dec. 7 by assisting on Jamie McBain's goal just 2:11 into Tuesday's game against the Penguins, but the Canes ended up falling 2-1 in a shootout despite 40 saves from Cam Ward.

"It's a tough pill to swallow," McBain said. "You know, once again we're feeling good about our game and we've just got to keep fighting and eventually the results will turn."

Who's Hot:
Ovechkin has a pair of power-play goals in the Capitals' last four games, giving him 8 for the season to surpass his output for the entire 2010-11 campaign. … Ward has allowed two goals or fewer in six consecutive starts for the Hurricanes, posting a .947 save percentage over that span.

Injury Report:
Washington defenseman Mike Green is back on injured reserve as the result of sports hernia surgery that will cost him 4-6 weeks. He joins Backstrom (head) and defenseman Tom Poti (groin). … Carolina defenseman Jaroslav Spacek (head) and forwards Chad LaRose (upper body) and Jerome Samson (upper body) are day-to-day. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen (concussion/knee) is out indefinitely. Goalie Brian Boucher (lower body) is on injured reserve.

Stat Pack:
While Ovechkin is on pace to exceed most of his stats from a career-worst season, one area where he did excel in 2010-11 was tying his career high with 11 game-winning goals. Ovechkin has just one game-winner so far through the Capitals' first 45 games this season. … The Hurricanes are fourth in the NHL with 720 blocked shots. Defenseman Bryan Allen is eighth in the League with 102 blocks.

Puck Drop: Carolina may reside at the bottom of the East standings, but team togetherness isn't an issue. An open-ice hit on Skinner on Tuesday precipitated an altercation involving Tim Brent and Joe Vitale of Pittsburgh, while Jay Harrison later stood up for Ward after he lost his mask and Tyler Kennedy fired a shot at him.

"Harry was quick to respond, and that's what we want,” coach Kirk Muller said. "That's what we're about it. It's about the team. It's about each other. It's about playing hard for each other and having each other's backs."
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