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Game Preview: Caps Look to Halt Avalanche

October 11, 2013
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Oct. 12 vs. Colorado Avalanche at Verizon Center    

Time: 7:00 p.m.


Radio: Capitals Radio Network


Colorado Avalanche (4-0)

Washington Capitals (1-3)


The Capitals seek to become the first team to hand the Colorado Avalanche a loss when the upstart Denver bunch heads to Verizon Center on Saturday. The game is the second game of a five-game homestand for Washington; the Caps opened that home stretch with a 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday.


Saturday’s game should feature a matchup of 2006 Caps draftees in goal. Michal Neuvirth gets his first start of the season for Washington, and he’ll likely be opposed by Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov. The Caps chose Varlamov in the first round (23rd overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and they selected Neuvirth in the second round (34th overall) of the same draft.


Washington has just two standings points to show for its first four games, and it held a lead in each of the three games it has lost. Caps coach Adam Oates remarked after Thursday’s loss that he believes his team could be 4-0 right now, and it could also be 0-4.


Four games is a small sample of an 82-game slate, and the Caps feel like they’re doing enough good things on the ice that they just need to stay the course and wait for things to turn their way.


“The difference is we didn’t win the game like we want to,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin of Thursday’s loss. “I think we didn’t play bad; we just killed ourselves. We made bad decisions in our zone and we made mistakes in our zone and it cost us points and it cost us a game. Of course, it’s only four games we’ve played. We have such a good group of guys here who play together and know exactly what we have to do.”


After managing just three even-strength goals in their first three games, the Caps scored a pair of even-strength goals in Thursday’s loss. They led 2-1 late in the second period, but a spate of penalties led to a 5-on-3 opportunity for the Canes. Ex-Cap Alexander Semin scored on the two-man advantage to even the game and set the stage for Gerbe’s third-period goal.


Oates has kept his top nine forwards intact and on the same lines throughout the team’s early season struggles, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the same top nine for Saturday’s game against the Avs, too.


“Adam has given us every opportunity to excel as a line,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer, “my line and everybody else’s line. It was good to see [Eric] Fehr’s line score [Thursday] night even though two of them weren’t on the ice for it, but they created the play and they made the goal happen.


“[Oates] is doing a good job of making sure that the players know that he’s comfortable with the lines and where they are right now. He fully expects these lines to pull through, otherwise he wouldn’t keep them together as long as he has.”


“It feels like our luck is maybe turning around a little bit,” says a hopeful Fehr. “We’ve been going hard the last couple of games and I think we’ve been getting better every single game since the start of the season. It’s a very lucky break, but we’ve had about 10 go the other way so we were pretty excited to get one. We’ve just got to keep pushing. I thought we could have had a few more last night.”


Washington has plenty of company at 1-3 in the standings. There are five other teams currently holding down the same record, and the Buffalo Sabres are below that bunch at 0-4-1.


“We’re unhappy with where we are in the standings,” says Brouwer. “We’re okay with how we’re playing. But we’ve got to be able to find ways to close out games. Every game that we’ve lost, we’ve had the lead at one point or another. You’re going to lose some games, but we’ve got to be able to hold onto those one-goal leads late, two-goal leads and making sure that we’re giving ourselves a chance to win. We’ve been tightening up a little bit I think, and we’ve been taking penalties, which has kind of hurt us the past few games.


“We’ve got to clean up a few areas of our game and I think we’ll be all right.


Braden Holtby has started all four of Washington’s games to date this season, but Neuvirth claimed the Caps’ lone win in a relief effort, an Oct. 3 shootout triumph over Calgary. With no back-to-backs slated for the Caps until November, Oates needed to find a way to get Neuvirth a start, and he’ll get the crease on Saturday.


“Every game has been really close,” says Holtby, “the score and the play has been quite even. It’s tough that we have the record that we have right now. But I think if you look at the way that we’re playing, we’re not too worried about it because we’re playing strong.


“We know we can play a lot better. But at the same time, we’re not where we are now in the standings because of the way that we’re playing. I think it will come. We’re just sticking with our program and we’ll start to string together a lot of wins here.”



“I think we’re playing very average right now, for our team,” says Fehr. “Obviously we’ve shown good spurts and we’ve made some good plays. But for the most part I think we’ve struggled in the defensive zone and I think we’ve been scrambling a little bit too much.


“This team has the offense; we’re going to score goals eventually. That’s not something we’re going to be worried about over the course of 82 games. But I think the one thing for us is making sure we’re strong in the d-zone; that could be our Achilles’ heel. We just need to make sure we’re strong in that end. The offense will take care of itself.”


The left side of Washington’s blueline has suffered a loss for the second consecutive Thursday. A week after Jack Hillen suffered a broken bone in his right leg that is expected to sideline him for the next 4-6 months, southpaw rearguard John Erskine went down with an upper body injury sustained on the play during which Carolina winger Nathan Gerbe netted the game-winning goal in the third period of Thursday’s game.


Washington claimed 22-year-old Swedish lefty defenseman Alexander Urbom off waivers from New Jersey last week, and the big blueliner acquitted himself well in his first game with Washington, the loss to the Hurricanes.


With Erskine now listed as day-to-day with an upper body injury, the Caps were forced into some roster maneuvers after Friday’s practice at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex.


Nineteen-year-old defenseman Connor Carrick was a healthy scratch for the first time in Thursday’s loss to Carolina, and he was reassigned to AHL Hershey after Friday’s practice, along with center Michael Latta. Latta played in two of Washington’s first four games this season; this is already his second reassignment to the Bears.


Washington has recalled left-handed defenseman Nate Schmidt from Hershey, and he will make his NHL debut on Saturday against Colorado.


“He’s a good, heady player,” says Oates of Schmidt. “He skates well, moves the puck well. And we need to get cleaner coming out of our own end. We don’t want to throw him into the lion’s den [Saturday] against a hot team, but he skates good and they’re a very good skating team.”


Schmidt signed with Washington as a free agent last April, after the conclusion of his junior season at U. of Minnesota. The 22-year-old native of St. Cloud, Minn. has a total of nine regular season and five postseason games under his belt at the professional level, all of them in the AHL.


The Caps’ blueline trio of Urbom, Schmidt and Steve Oleksy heads into Saturday’s game with a combined total of 45 games worth of NHL experience.


With Latta headed back to Hershey, it’s also likely that center Jay Beagle will return to the lineup to man the middle of Washington’s fourth line.


The Avalanche concludes its three-game road trip with Saturday’s visit to Verizon Center, its first trip to the District since it earned a 3-2 win over the Caps on Dec. 11, 2010. The Avs hit town on the heels of Thursday’s 2-0 shutout win over the Bruins in Boston, a victory that ran Colorado’s record to a perfect 4-0. Veteran netminder J-S Giguere earned the shutout in the win over the Bruins, stopping 39 shots in the process.


Under new head coach Patrick Roy, the Avs have outscored foes by a combined 13-3 in their first four games. Given the abundance of skilled and talented young players dotting the Colorado roster, the goals scored figure is not a surprise. Eight different players have found the back of the net for the Avs, and four Colorado skaters have scored multiple goals in the four games to date.


But given that the Avs finished last season ranked 27th in the NHL in goals against per game (3.12), the 0.75 figure is somewhat astonishing, even in a small sample size.


NOTES: Schmidt will become the fourth Capital to make his NHL regular season debut this season, the most debuts Washington has had in a season since 2008-09 when eight players took to the ice for the first time in the NHL: Neuvirth, Varlamov, Karl Alzner, Tyler Sloan, Sean Collins, Beagle, Andrew Gordon and Oskar Osala.


Washington established its franchise record for players making their NHL debut in the same season way back in 1974-75, the inaugural season for the Caps in the NHL. That 8-67-5 club had 13 players who skated in their first games in the league during that dismal campaign.


Carrick was the Capitals’ fifth-round choice (137th overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft. The only defensemen drafted later to play for Washington as a teenager was Tony Camazzola, a 10th-rounder (194th overall) in the 1980 Draft who cracked the Caps’ roster as a 19-year-old in 1981-82. Camazzola played three games that season, and that turned out to be the entirety of his NHL career.