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Caps and Devils seek pre-Chrismas win

by David Kalan

CAPITALS (17-14-1) at DEVILS (18-14-1)


LAST 10: Washington 5-5-0; New Jersey 6-4-0.

Season Series: The Devils and Capitals split their first two games of the season, a home and home on Nov. 11 and 12, with Washington winning in New Jersey and the Devils returning the favor at the Verizon Center one night later.

Big Story: After somewhat sluggish starts, both the Capitals and Devils appear to be picking up their pace lately, and with the two separated by just two points in the clustered Eastern Conference standings, a win against another team jumbled in the mix will pay enormous dividends.

Team Scope:

Capitals: After a rough month of November, the coaching change in which Bruce Boudreau was shown the door after four consecutive division titles and replaced by Dale Hunter seemed like a last-gasp effort to steady the ship. Washington still trails the surprising Panthers in the Southeast Division, but with multiple games in hand and the team starting to win again it appears the Caps my finally have their feet back under them. Washington knocked off Nashville 4-1 on Tuesday for its fourth victory in six games.

Even better was the fact that the Caps' big guns -- Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin -- all had goals. It was the first time since October 2010 that all three scored in the same game.

Devils: Are the Devils making a serious push to climb up the Atlantic Division standings? After winning six of their last eight games it's starting to look that way. New Jersey currently sits nine points back of division-leading Philadelphia, seven behind the New York Rangers and five in back of Pittsburgh.

New Jersey is coming off a 4-1 loss Tuesday night to the rival Rangers, but the game did feature the first goal of the season for center Travis Zajac, who was playing his third game after missing almost 2 1/2 months while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery. With New Jersey desperately seeking scoring beyond its big guns like Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, adding a new contributor can only be a boon.

Who's Hot: In training camp there was skepticism that Petr Sykora could make the Devils' roster or contribute this season, and he's been particularly productive lately, tallying five points in his last three games. ... Backstrom has been leading the way for Washington, with five points in his last five games.

Injury Report: David Clarkson is considered questionable due to an illness, while Patrik Elias, who missed his first game after becoming the Devils' all-time leading goal scorer with a high temperature, is probably. … The Capitals have been without defenseman Mike Green for six weeks due to a groin injury, but are otherwise not missing any major players.

Stat Pack: New Jersey has only won half of its games at the Prudential Center this season, but facing the Capitals might be the right elixir for establishing a home-ice advantage. No team in the East has fewer points on the road this season than Washington.

Puck Drop: It's the last game for both teams before the Christmas break, and goaltender Martin Brodeur says the arrival of the holidays always means doing some juggling between hockey and family.

"A lot of things happen around the holiday season," said Brodeur, who's expected to start, told the team's website. "Families are coming in, friends. You have to try to stay focused as much with what we need to do. I think we have to enjoy it, too. It's a great time of the year, but again, we're here to do something and if we're better prepared than the other team. … I think everybody's facing the same thing during the holidays."

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