Jan. 12 vs. Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center
Time: 3:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Buffalo Sabres (12-26-5)
Washington Capitals (22-16-6)
Washington’s three-game homestand continues on Sunday when the Buffalo Sabres come to the District to supply the opposition for the middle match of the Capitals’ three-game stay in town. Sunday’s visit is Buffalo’s only trip to the nation’s capital this season.
The Caps bring a modest two-game winning run into Sunday’s game, having swept a set of back-to-back contests in Tampa Bay on Thursday and in the homestand opener on Friday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both of those wins were one-goal triumphs achieved in regulation, the fashion is which Washington has recorded each of its last three victories.
Those last three victories are the Caps’ only one-goal victories achieved in regulation this season. Washington went 10-3 in its first 13 one-goal games that were decided in overtime or a shootout this season, but the Capitals were 0-5 in their first five one-goal games that were decided in regulation.
The Caps’ first win in a one-goal, regulation game came on Dec. 27 against the Rangers at Verizon Center. They’re 3-0 in their last three one-goal regulation games but 0-3 in their last three overtime or shootout decisions.
“It’s huge,” says caps defenseman John Carlson of the team’s recent stretch of success in one-goal regulation games. “I think with our schedule coming up, it’s nice to start winning some games early and get some confidence because [the record] can turn over like that. It can turn over negatively or positively and that’s what we’ve been trying to change. I think we’ve done a good job of that. Obviously you’d like to have games in the bank in the second or third period and not have to worry about battling games to the end. But maybe that’s what we need right now is just a little character check, and I think we’ve shown that the past two games.”
The Caps will be looking for a third straight regulation win for the first time in the 2013-14 season on Sunday.
Washington has seen two-goal leads evaporate four times in its last nine games, and the Caps are 1-2-1 in those contests. Proper puck management has sometimes been a problem for the Capitals as they try to close out games in which they own the lead.
“It’s definitely tough thing to understand what’s the right play and what’s the right pressure and stuff like that,” says Carlson. “I think every hockey player needs to keep learning on that. In the past two games, I thought we kept the gas pedal down and I thought we did a good job of making sure the puck is getting deep. That’s huge all the time, but certainly towards the end [of the game] and certainly when you have the lead. Zone time is the best defense. It’s nice when we can just stand there on the blueline and shuffle some pucks back into their end.”
Washington went into the third period of Friday’s game with the Leafs all even at 1-1. Toronto took a 2-1 lead in the first minute of the final frame, but the Caps rebounded for two tallies to take a 3-2 decision. For the most part, the Capitals did a better job of managing the puck once they gained that lead late in the game.
“It’s about making good decisions,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer, “being careful with the puck and protecting the puck, making sure our D-men aren’t pinching if they’re not 100 percent sure, making sure our forwards aren’t going into the pile in the offensive zone if we don’t have the puck and just not putting ourselves in a vulnerable position where [the opposition] can get an odd-man rush.
“We’ve got to be conscious about where we are on the ice, playing the score and playing the clock. I’m not saying sit back and relax and just try and defend the lead, but at that point when you’re up two goals, you don’t need to take chances. You don’t need to try and create more. If it’s there, take it absolutely. But don’t try to make something out of nothing.”
Washington has put together half a dozen consistently solid performances in succession now, but is just 2-2-2 in those contests. Is it easier to put together a consistent stretch of good hockey when they schedule is as tightly packed as Washington’s is this month?
“When you’re winning it does,” says Brouwer. “When we were losing like that, we still thought we were playing well but it’s tough to go into the next game and be confident and be excited, especially when you feel like you deserve to win and you’re not coming out with points. But the last two games, we battled real hard.
“The Tampa Bay game I would have liked to see us not give up a lead but we did. But we were still able to battle back and win in regulation, which we need to do more of, especially with so many teams tying every night. To be able to get four points in our last two games, it’s a confidence builder for us. We’ve got another tough game [Sunday] against a team that’s playing a real defensive style with a good goalie. It’s going to be a good test for us, especially since we feel we deserved to win the last time we played them.”
Each of Washington’s three goaltenders has had a start in the team’s last three games. Philipp Grubauer beat the Bolts in Tampa Bay on Thursday and Michal Neuvirth was excellent on Friday in making his first start in seven weeks. Neuvirth stopped 32 of 34 shots to help the Caps down a desperate Toronto team.
Grubauer has started 10 of the Capitals’ last 15 games and would seem the likeliest of the three to draw the starting assignment on Sunday when Buffalo visits Verizon.
Through 44 games of the schedule, Washington is on the exact same pace as it was last season when it finished with 57 points over the 48-game slate.
“We’ve touched on it a little bit,” says Carlson. “For a team like us that is so talented and has all the guns that we need – we’ve got goaltending and defense – we just need to put it together. And that’s our thing, it’s about us, it’s not about the other team. I think we did it last year, too, when we went through a little bit of a slump and then we came out of that and we kept rising. That’s our goal here and I think everyone knows that we’re capable of it, and it’s time to do it.”
When the Caps and Sabres met for the first time this season two weeks ago in Buffalo, the Sabres prevailed 2-1 in the shootout despite the Caps owning a 50-17 advantage in shots on goal for the game.
Buffalo has gone 1-2-1 in four games since, scoring a grand total of four goals in the process. Two of those four goals came on the power play in a Jan. 4 game against New Jersey. Those tallies and Ryan Miller’s netminding enabled the Sabres to slip past the Devils, 2-1. That game marked the first time in nearly three months (since Oct. 8) that the Sabres had managed to score more than one power-play goal in the same game.
Most recently, the Sabres suffered a 2-1 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers in Buffalo on Thursday night.
Buffalo is a banged up bunch; the Sabres have been playing without defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Tyler Myers and have also been missing forwards Cody Hodgson, Ville Leino and Drew Stafford.
Hodgson and Leino could return to action on Sunday in Washington.