Pregame #45: Washington Capitals at Montreal Canadiens

Washington Capitals (24-18-2) at Montréal Canadiens (27-12-5)
The Bell Centre
Time: 7:00 PM
TV:  Local: Comcast SportsNet, National: NBC Sports Network, Canada: CBC & RDS
Radio: 1500AM & 820AM
Previous Games:
Jan 24, 2013 MTL@WSH, 1-4 L
Apr  9, 2013 WSH@MTL, 3-2 W
Familiar Faces of Former Capitals: C Jeff Halpern (507 GP, 1999-2006, 2011-12)
Former Canadien:  C Mike Ribeiro (276 GP, 1999-2006)

It'll be ok, Carey. Read on!

Carey Price

The Washington Capitals are coming off their first loss of the month on Thursday night.  After compiling an 8-game win streak that saw the Caps finding ways to win every type of game, the Ottawa Senators clamped down and kept the Caps hemmed in their own zone.  The Capitals were not able or willing to match the playoff intensity the Senators showed, but they still managed to keep themselves in the game by sticking to their system for most of the night and managed to get scoring chances with their talent.  That loss also helped the Winnipeg Jets gain ground on the Capitals in the chase for the Southeast Division crown and now sit just 2 points behind with 4 games to go.  The lesson the Capitals should have learned in Ottawa is that they must raise their intensity level for the final few games, because should the Capitals face the Senators in the first round of the playoffs, you can bet they'll be playing the same way from the opening faceoff.  The Capitals will get their first chance to start ratcheting up their intensity against Montreal on Hockey Night in Canada.

The Montreal Canadiens snapped a streak of their own on Thursday night with a 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.  That win, their fourth game in six days, stopped a streak of three losses in which the Canadiens allowed at least 5 goals and replaced their goalie in each game.  In fact, that game was just the Habs' second win since April 6, as they went 1-4-0 starting with the loss to the Capitals on April 9.  With the Canadiens reeling a bit since clinching a playoff berth, they are vulnerable to another let-down. 

Injury Report: Capitals' C Brooks Laich (abdomen) and RW Joel Ward (knee) are out.  C Nicklas Backstrom (arm) is day-to-day.
-For the Canadiens D Alexei Emelin (knee) is out.  D Raphael Diaz (concussion) and RW Colby Armstrong (lower body) are day-to-day.  RW Ryan White is suspended.

Three Things To Watch For:

King of the Hillen:  In addition to being a new father and the owner of a new 2-year contract, defenseman Capitals defenseman Jack Hillen is also on a scoring spree.  With 3 goals, 7 points, and a +8 rating in his last 6 games, he is making General Manager George McPhee look very smart for signing him to bargain deals.  His partner on the third pairing, Steve Oleksy, has posted 3 assists and a +5 rating over the same span, not bad for a defense pairing with a combined salary cap hit of under $1.2 million.  The undersized Hillen has always been a capable puck-moving defenseman, but he seems to especially enjoy playing against the Canadiens.  Hillen has 1 goal and 4 points in his last 3 games against Les Habitants.  After scoring the game-winning goal against Carey Price in their last visit to Bell Centre, expect Hillen to be a difference maker again. 

Price Tagged:  While Montreal goaltender Carey Price backstopped his team to a win over the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning, including some highlight reel stops, he has been less than stellar in his last dozen games.  With just a 4-7-0 record since March 23, he has been wildly inconsistent goaltending from night to night.  In that span, Price has recorded 1 shutout, 2 wins allowing just 1 goal, and has been pulled 3 times with red-light sunburn.  Since March 23, Price has posted a mediocre 2.97 goals against average and a .898 save percentage.  In his last 5 games, Price's numbers are even uglier: a .851 save percentage and a 4.89 GAA.  This has prompted Coach Michel Therrien to use backup Peter Budaj more often, and Budaj has responded with a perfect 3-0 record, a .910 save percentage, and a 2.32 goals against average since March 23, including 3 relief appearances for Price and a game he was himself pulled from.  Unfortunately for Montreal fans, their playoff hopes lie with the extremely talented and unreliable Price who has just 1 playoff series victory in 4 trips to the postseason. 

Czechpoint:  New Capital winger Martin Erat has started to make an impression on his new team.  For Capitals fans unaccustomed to seeing a second-line winger with both soft hands and a willingness to play at the net, Erat is a breath of fresh air.  Always a skilled and speedy forward, Erat has also been a factor on the forecheck, posting 9 hits in his 5 games with the Caps. While it took him a couple games to get on the scoresheet (and a week to get over a knee injury), he immediately showed the creativity he has been known for, displaying soft hands in high traffic areas and making unexpectedly dangerous passes to teammates in scoring areas.  Most importantly, he makes the duo of Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer that much more dangerous.  He scored his first Capitals goal against Toronto from the blue paint on Tuesday and he helped set up Brouwer's goal, too.  Against Ottawa, Erat managed to get his stick on an airborne point shot from Jack Hillen, bounce it to himself, then swat it in midair over to Ribeiro in front of the net for a goal.  It is pretty easy to imagine the Capitals' top two lines doing some serious damage in the playoffs this spring with Erat patrolling the left wing. 

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