Friday, March 25, 2011, 11:13 a.m.By Ben RabyCSNwashington.com
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There are must-win games, and then there are much-needed wins. Its hard to call an inter-division game in December a must win, but when the Capitals beat the Ottawa Senators, 3-2, Dec. 19, it was a victory the Caps desperately needed. It ended the teams season-high eight-game losing streak and set the tone for an impressive run ever since.
Beginning with that win, the Capitals have gone 25-9-6 (a .625 winning percentage) to pull within two points of the conference-leading Flyers. Over those 40 games, the Caps have allowed just 80 goals against (2.00 per game).
We have confidence in every game, said Scott Hannan, who experienced his first win as a Capital that Dec. 19 night in Ottawa. Were winning on the road, playing the right way, and I think with our type of hockey and with the way were playing - were not giving up much as far as quality scoring chances.
Ottawa has gone the opposite direction since blowing a 2-0, second-period lead against Washington, posting a 14-21-5 record (a .350 winning percentage) to fall to last place in the Eastern Conference.
As a result, the Senators will have a much different look from the team the Capitals have gone 3-0-0 against this season. Since the teams last met Jan. 16 at Verizon Center, the Sens have traded top-six forwards Mike Fisher and Alex Kovalev, grinders Jarko Ruutu and Chris Kelly, defenseman Chris Campoli and goalie Brian Elliott.
The Senators are in an all-out rebuild. Seven of Ottawas 18 skaters in last nights 2-1 shootout win in New York began the year in the American Hockey League. But that has some Capitals suggesting this could be the toughest game of the season series. Theyre playing great hockey, Matt Bradley said of a Senators team that has won six of nine games, including twice against Tampa Bay.
There are lots of guys on those non-playoff teams trying to make an impression for next year. I know they have lots of guys called up from the minors that want to show theyre NHL guys, ready for the step up, so you get some really hungry guys that want to prove something.
Ottawas prospects have also been given an opportunity to audition for NHL positions because of long-term injuries to Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson, former Capital Sergei Gonchar and forwards Milan Michalek and Peter Regin. Theyre playing successfully if you look at Ottawa and those teams that are currently not in the playoffs, Bruce Boudreau said.
You can look at Atlanta, Toronto, Ottawa, the Islanders -- if the season had started a month ago, the standings would be reversed with those guys on top. So theres no way were going to take Ottawa lightly.
With a win tonight, the Capitals would sweep the season series against the Senators for the second time in four years.
Between the pipes
Goalie Craig Anderson has also injected some energy in Ottawa. Anderson has gone 7-4-1, with a 2.00 GAA and .940 save percentage since he was acquired in a February trade from Colorado.
Should Anderson start tonight in Ottawa, it would be his first home appearance since signing a four-year 12.75 million extension earlier in the week. Anderson stopped 40 of 42 shots in a 3-2 Avalanche win in Washington on Dec. 15.
Michal Neuvirth is expected to start his fourth straight game for the Caps, while Semyon Varlamov is likely to make his first appearance since Feb. 20 tomorrow in Montreal. Boudreau has said that he will use the final eight regular season games to determine his playoff starter.
They both want the ball, Boudreau said of his goalies. They both want to be the guy that goes in the net come playoff time. That makes it really a good battle. I think we said in Game 1 that they would be battling all year and I think we were correct in that and I dont think its stopped yet.
Boudreau said that one of the factors in deciding who will start which games down the stretch could be how each goalie has fared against a particular opponent. Sometimes its almost like baseball statistically. You look at whos played well against Ottawa, whos been successful against Montreal. You add all those things up and you pick a guy and you stick with him.
Neuvirth is 3-0-0 against the Senators with a 1.63 GAA and .938 save percentage, while Varlamov has a 3-0-1 regular-season record against the Canadiens with a 1.45 GAA, .950 save percentage and one shutout.
The Capitals left for Canada without injured forwards Alex Ovechkin and Jason Arnott or defensemen Mike Green and Tom Poti.
Ovechkin and Arnott skated for about 30 minutes yesterday at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex and remain on schedule to return by the end of the next week.
Greens status is less certain. Boudreau told reporters that he would like to see Green get in a few games before the playoffs but that they will not play him prematurely.
Wed want him in at least three practices, three good practices, before we put him in a game I think, minimum. Quite frankly, I play him when trainer Greg Smith says hes OK to play and Ill be the first one to put him in.
Were not going to say, Oh, hes feeling good. Lets put him in. I told him again Thursday, I said, Mike I just want you to get better. I said, I want you to play, but I want you to get better, and he was saying how good he felt and I said thats a fabulous sign.