By Adam Vingan
The Washington Capitals have played 10 games so far this season against 10 different opponents, three of which (Edmonton, Vancouver and Anaheim) they won’t see again. Friday, the Caps will play their first repeat opponent when they face the Carolina Hurricanes at RBC Center in the second of six overall meetings this season.
The Caps and Hurricanes last met October 8 in the former’s season opener. Washington blew two leads during the game, but held a 3-2 advantage late on Brooks Laich’s power play goal. Yet, with 1:19 left, Jussi Jokinen tied the score and sent the game to overtime, where Mike Green scored the game-winning goal to give the Caps the 4-3 victory.
Since that game almost four weeks ago, much has changed. Two of that game’s biggest players – Jokinen and Green – will not play as both are suffering from lower-body injuries (the former injured his left leg in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the latter has yet to fully practice since injuring his right ankle against the Detroit Red Wings two weeks ago). Also, the Hurricanes’ top line from October 8 – Jeff Skinner, Eric Staal and Tuomo Ruutu – are no longer together after combining for two goals and four assists in that game. Staal is now joined by Jiri Tlusty and Chard LaRose on the first line, while Skinner and Ruutu are now with Anthony Stewart on the second line.
Regardless of those changes, the Caps are focused on making sure they stop the Hurricanes’ top offensive threats (Staal, especially) and now have a recent game to look back to in order to prepare.
“He’s always playing us tough,” Laich said of Staal. “I think Eric Staal usually has his best games against us. We were able to control them a little bit 5-nn-5, but that line, I think, still ended up with all three goals, even through they were on the power play or something. He’s a key to that team and for us to have success, we’ve got to try to limit him.”
In 49 career games against Washington, Staal has 22 goals and 50 points, totals only second to the Tampa Bay Lightning on his career list. In the team’s first meeting, Staal had two goals, both of which came on the power play. The Hurricanes went 2-of-4 on the power play in that game (50 percent), which is the most success any team has had against the Caps this season with the man advantage. Carolina has only scored six power play goals since then and are 21st in the league at 14.3 percent, but Laich knows that the Hurricanes’ power play is a big key to their offense.
“Penalty kill’s got to be better,” Laich said. “Carolina lives with their special teams. In the past, they’ve given us fits. Weve got to be disciplined. We’ve got to keep it 5-on-5, and if we can do that, we can keep rolling the lines.”
Another change from last month’s game will be Marcus Johansson’s presence in the lineup. Johansson was a healthy scratch October 8, but still saw that Carolina is capable of while watching the game.
“They’ve got a couple really good lines,” Johannson said. “They’re dangerous, so we’ve got to be ready and we’ve got to bring our best game, not let them score three goals or four goals. We’ve got to keep our defense tight.”
Part of the defense will be Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth injured his foot October 10 and has made one relief appearance since. Coincidentally, his one start of the season came against the Hurricanes October 8, when he made 28 saves for the victory. With back-to-back games this weekend, Neuvirth could start Friday and his mindset entering the game, much like the rest of his teammates, is knowing what Carolina is capable of.
“It’s good to know that I beat them already this year, but it’s going to be a totally different game,” Neuvirth said. “You want to win no matter what.”