Dec. 20 vs. Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (18-13-3)
Carolina Hurricanes (14-13-7)
The Capitals finish off a two-game pre-holiday road foray with a Friday night visit to Raleigh where they’ll take on the Carolina Hurricanes. The game marks the first of Washington’s two visits to Carolina this season.
Carolina has had the Caps’ number so far this season, defeating Washington at Verizon Center by a 3-2 score on Oct. 10 and by a 4-1 count on Dec. 3.
Washington comes to Raleigh on the heels of a 5-2 loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia on Tuesday. That game was all even at 2-2 with less than five minutes remaining in the second period when a Tom Wilson hit on Flyers forward Brayden Schenn resulted in a game misconduct and a five-minute charging major on the Caps rookie winger. Philadelphia scored twice on the ensuing power play and that was the difference in the game.
Wilson had a telephone hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Thursday just before Washington’s departure for Carolina. Several hours after the hearing was concluded, the league announced there would be no further discipline for Wilson.
Caps general manager George McPhee issued the following statement after the league’s announcement:
"We agree with the league's position that it was a clean hit. There should not have been a penalty on the play. It was a punishing hit, not predatory or otherwise illegal. Under our current rules, punishing but clean hits are permitted. We are happy that Tom Wilson was vindicated and Brayden Schenn is not injured."
Caps center Mikhail Grabovski missed the team’s last two games (both against Philadelphia) because of flu-like symptoms. Grabovski rejoined his teammates for practice for the first time since Saturday and said he was feeling much better.
The Caps are playing exclusively against Metropolitan Division opponents this week. After a home-and-home set of games against the Flyers to start the week, Washington follows Friday’s visit to Raleigh with a Saturday night home game against the New Jersey Devils.
Going into Thursday’s slate of NHL activity, the Caps are 12 points behind front-running Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division standings. That matches the largest gap between any two teams in any of the league’s four divisions; seventh-place Florida holds a 12-point lead over eighth-place Buffalo in the NHL’s Atlantic Division.
The Caps lead third-place Carolina by four points heading into Friday’s head-to-head match-up, and the Hurricanes are one of four teams bunched within five points of second-place Washington.
“We all look at the standings,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera. “Third and fourth place are only a few points behind us, so you’ve got to create distance. You know you’re going to have lapses in the season where you go maybe three or four games without a win and teams catch up. When you’re on a hot streak, you want to extend it as much as you can because you don’t know when it’s going to end. And there are lot of times where you play really good but lose hockey games, and you lose points because of it.
“These points are really crucial right now, especially against our division to gain ground and create some separation between us and that fourth-place team. Once you get to fourth place, it’s really a crapshoot to get in [to the playoffs] because you have the two wild card spots. It’s really hard to get in because there are a lot of good teams out there.”
Washington recalled goaltender Michal Neuvirth from his AHL Hershey conditioning stint on Wednesday. With Neuvith, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer all on the roster, the Caps had three goalies at Thursday’s practice and all three are on the trip to Raleigh.
Holtby started in Tuesday’s loss in Philadelphia, but Grubauer started two in a row and three of four prior to that game. Neuvirth has not played since he started and went the distance in a 3-2 loss to the Canadiens on Nov. 22 at Verizon Center.
Carolina is on a bit of a strong run, going 6-3-2 in its last 11 games. In the shorter term, the Canes are 4-1-2 in their last seven games, a streak that started with their win over the Capitals in Washington on Dec. 3.
The Hurricanes have been idle for nearly a week; Friday’s game is their first action since last Saturday when they concluded a four-game road trip against Western Conference foes with a 3-1 triumph over the Coyotes in Phoenix. The Canes went 1-1-2 on that journey.
Heading into this season, the Hurricanes were hoping to have franchise goaltender Cam Ward healthy for the duration. A sprained MCL injury to Ward derailed a promising start for the Canes last season, as the team’s goaltending depth was not sufficient to keep it afloat in the chase for playoff positioning.
Carolina entered this season with a healthy Ward and freshly signed free-agent backup Anton Khudobin, believing they had sufficiently buttressed their netminding situation. Ward, who is under contract at a salary cap hit of $6.3 million per season for two more campaigns beyond the current one, was healthy at season’s outset but was felled by a lower body injury in late October. He returned to action in mid-November.
Khudobin went 2-0 in his first three appearances with the Canes, but was injured in an Oct. 13 game and has been sidelined since. He has been medically cleared to play and figures to be back in action very soon.
Justin Peters has played in the AHL in three of the last four seasons, including the current one, and he has yet to play in as many as 20 games in any of his five NHL seasons. But that could change in 2013-14.
Even with Ward now healthy, Peters has shouldered the lion’s share of the netminding chores of late, and he has been more effective than Ward as well. Peters has played in five of Carolina’s last seven games, and Ward is just 3-3-2 with a 3.25 GAA and an .892 save pct. since coming off injured reserve in mid-November.
Peters entered the 2013-14 season with a 15-22-4 career record and a 3.32 GAA in four NHL seasons. Thus far in 2013-14, he is 7-8-2 with a 2.16 GAA and a .929 save pct.
Carolina has averaged just 2.29 goals per game this season, tied for 25th in the NHL. The canes have allowed 2.68 goals per game, the third best mark among all Metropolitan Division clubs in 2013-14.
The Hurricanes are 7-6-4 on home ice thus far this season. The Canes are 2-3 in their last five home games, but they’ve played 10 of their last 15 games away from PNC Arena. Starting with Friday’s game against the Capitals, the Hurricanes will play four of their next six games on home ice, taking them into calendar 2014.