The Washington Capitals are clearly a better team than they were last season. That bodes well for a club that won the Southeast Division and finished with the franchise's highest point total in eight years in 2007-08.
Led by red-hot Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals seek their season-high sixth straight victory on Saturday night when they visit the Philadelphia Flyers in a rematch of last season's Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, the Capitals (20-10-3) found new life under coach Bruce Boudreau and went 37-17-7 after he replaced Glen Hanlon on Nov. 22, 2007. Washington closed the regular season with an 11-1-0 run to capture the Southeast title before losing in seven games to Philadelphia in the conference quarterfinals.
This year's Capitals haven't had to deal with the slow start last season's team did. A 4-2 victory over St. Louis on Thursday was Washington's 20th win, a number it didn't reach in 2007-08 until Jan. 17. This also is the first time since the 1992-93 season that the Capitals have 20 victories before Jan. 1.
"It's still before Christmas and I think we can play a lot better," Boudreau said. "We can shut them down better, and our power play wasn't really good. I don't know if we've hit our stride yet."
Viktor Kozlov had two goals with an assist while Ovechkin added his team-high 20th goal for Washington, which has won five straight for the second time this season.
Rookie Simeon Varlamov stopped 29 shots to win for the second time in two starts. Varlamov, though, was assigned back to Hershey of the AHL on Friday with Jose Theodore coming off injured reserve.
Brent Johnson is expected to be in net for the Capitals, looking to win his sixth consecutive start. Johnson is 5-0-0 with a 1.77 goals-against average during his streak, but 2-6-0 with a 4.54 GAA in eight appearances versus the Flyers.
Ovechkin has six goals and three assists during a six-game point streak, and has scored 18 goals in his last 20 contests. Since going scoreless in his first career game against Philadelphia (17-8-6), Ovechkin has lit up the Flyers for 12 goals and 21 points in 11 regular-season meetings.
He was just as effective in Washington's first-round loss to Philadelphia, collecting four goals and five assists.
The Flyers also enter this game on a hot streak despite a loss in their last outing. They had a five-game win streak snapped and dropped to 13-2-3 in their last 18 contests with a 5-2 defeat at Montreal on Thursday.
Arron Asham and Braydon Coburn scored for Philadelphia, which had not lost in regulation in seven games (6-0-1).
"You can't win them all," center Jeff Carter said. "We got off to a slow start, but we picked it up there as the game rolled on and we got some chances. We were shooting high and wide a lot, and their goalie played well. That's about it."
Flyers captain Mike Richards had an eight-game point streak halted in the loss after collecting seven goals and eight assists in that stretch. His 37 points ties him for the team lead with Simon Gagne.
Antero Niittymaki likely will make his third straight start for Philadelphia after his personal five-game win streak was snapped by the Canadiens. Niittymaki is 3-2-1 with a 2.54 GAA lifetime against the Capitals.
Washington has won four straight in Philadelphia after a nine-game losing streak there.