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Battle of the elite as Blackhawks welcome in Capitals

by Brian Hunter
CAPITALS (45-14-9) at BLACKHAWKS (44-18-5)

Last 10: Washington 5-2-3; Chicago 7-3-0

Season series:
This is the only meeting of the 2009-10 regular season between these teams, who haven't met since the opening weekend of the previous season. Alex Ovechkin scored a pair of goals and the Capitals doubled up the Blackhawks 4-2 in Washington on Oct. 11, 2008.

Big story:
NBC's Game of the Week is a possible look ahead to the Stanley Cup Final -- however, both teams have some questions in net that must be answered if they are to win their respective conferences in the playoffs. Namely, do you go with experience or youth? The Capitals must decide between Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov, while the Blackhawks have to pick from the tandem of Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi.

Team Scope:

With a chance to become the first team to eclipse 100 points this season, Washington lost for just the fourth time in regulation at Verizon Center, 3-2 to Tampa Bay on Friday. Varlamov, who stopped 24 shots, is 13-3-3 this season, but he's allowed at least three goals in all four of his starts since returning from a groin injury that cost him two months. Theodore, meanwhile, is 13-0-2 in his last 15 decisions.

"It had nothing to do with goaltending," coach Bruce Boudreau said in absolving Varlamov of Friday's defeat. "We should be able to score, with that lineup, three goals a game and we got none five-on-five, which has been a strength of ours all year. When you get none five-on-five the telltale sign isn’t luck, you got outworked."

Victory turned into defeat in a matter of minutes Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia, as a 2-1 lead for Chicago turned into a stunning 3-2 loss after Scott Hartnell netted the tying goal with 2:04 remaining and Chris Pronger scored the game-winner with 2.1 seconds left. Huet made 31 saves in his first start since getting pulled on March 7 against Detroit. Niemi, who is 18-5-1 this season, is expected to get the nod on Sunday.

"The goaltending was great tonight on both ends," coach Joel Quenneville said. "They did their job. That's why it was a tough ending. It's a frustrating loss, but we're excited about tomorrow's game and we'll move ahead."

Who's hot:
Tomas Fleischmann has goals in consecutive games for the Capitals and a career-high 20 for the season. Ovechkin has two goals and four assists in the last three games. Mike Green has two goals and two assists in the last three games.

Kris Versteeg has goals in consecutive games for the Blackhawks and three in his last four.

Injury report:
Washington defenseman Milan Jurcina, reacquired from Columbus at the trade deadline, is out indefinitely due to sports hernia surgery.

Stat pack:
Green's assist Friday gave him 50 for the season, a mark not reached by a Capitals defenseman since Kevin Hatcher in 1990-91. Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy also accomplished the feat for the franchise. … The Blackhawks lead the League averaging 34.3 shots per game. The Capitals average 33 and are second.

Puck drop:
Washington holds a 14-point lead over Pittsburgh for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but Chicago will have its work cut out if it wants to unseat San Jose in the West. The Blackhawks and Sharks -- who play Sunday night in Anaheim -- each have 15 games left in the regular season.

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