Ward, Don’t You Think You’ve Been a Little Hard on the Caps?
In Raleigh tonight, the Capitals play their biggest game of the year against division rival Carolina, a team that gave them a 6-3 thumping on their last visit here on Feb. 23. A loss tonight ends any hope of a Southeast Division title for Washington.
They’ll face a Carolina team that has won four straight at home, a Carolina team that is 14-3-1 in its last 18 games, and a Carolina team that has averaged 3.56 goals per game (Ottawa leads the league with 3.16 goals per game on the season) over its last 18 games, despite missing four of its top six forwards (Rod Brind’Amour, Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney and Justin Williams) at the moment.
And they’ll face Cam Ward.
A few days back we spent some time discussing the trouble the Caps had been having with Atlanta goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Those woes pale in comparison to facing Ward, who is on the Martin Brodeur Path of Capitals Dominance career path.
This is Ward’s third season in the league. He is 10-3 with three shutouts, a 2.50 goals against average and a .916 save pct. against Washington in his career. This season, Ward is 4-0 with a shutout, a 1.75 goals against average and a .949 save pct. against the Caps.
I asked Bruce Boudreau about Lehtonen before the Atlanta game, and the Caps broke the hex. If it works, don’t fix it, so I asked him about Ward this morning. (I’m not superstitious; just a little stitious.)
“He’s good,” says the Caps bench boss. “I don’t know anything about goaltending except the ones that stop the pucks. When he is on top of his game, he’s not giving up rebounds. He’s squaring up very similar to a lot of goalies. You can tell he has been on his game for the last [while]. This is the [15th] game in a row he has started and their record speaks for itself. He had one bad game in Buffalo. Other than that, he has been airtight.
Then Boudreau laid out the formula for success.
“We know we’re going to have to get traffic in front of the net. We’re going to have to drive to the net and have two or three guys getting second and third shots to beat him. That’s what they do. That’s exactly how they win. Their guys are attacking nets with a voracious appetite these days. They get the second and third shots and they’re willing to pay the price and they’ve been successful doing it.”
In other words, play how they played in the third period in Atlanta on Friday. Works for me.
Washington’s last win over Ward was on Jan. 27, 2007 at Verizon Center. He has defeated them six times since. The Caps have defeated Ward in Carolina only once, back on Mar. 29, 2006 when they triumphed, 5-1. Matt Bradley scored twice in that game, Alex Ovechkin netted his 48th of the season on a Washington power play, Chris Clark scored shorthanded and Brian Willsie had the other goal.
In going 6-0 in his last six starts against the Caps, Ward has allowed just five even strength goals in those six games. That brings us to the other important aspect of tonight’s game: special teams.
Washington is 12-for-41 (29.3%) with the extra man in its last 10 games, despite going 0-for-6 on the power play in its last two games. Carolina’s much-maligned penalty killing unit is out of last place and now ranks 29th in the league. In their last 11 games, the Hurricanes have killed off 39 of 42 (92.9%) opposition power play chances.
On the other side of that special teams spectrum, the Caps have surrendered at least one power play goal in each of their last four games, matching their longest streak of that kind this season. Carolina’s extra-man unit is 12th in the league this season, but it has been clicking at a 22% pace over the last dozen games.
What’s even more alarming is that the Canes have had 68 power play chances in those last 12 games. (For comparison’s sake, the Capitals have had 49 chances of their own in their last 12 games, and Carolina has only had to kill 46 opposition power plays in the last 12 games.) If the Caps are faced with having to kill five or six or seven Carolina power plays tonight, it could get ugly. The Canes were 4-for-7 on the power play against Washington the last time the Caps played here on Feb. 23.
“I think special teams against these guys are really important, as well as anybody,” says Boudreau. “But they scored four [power play goals] against us last time. Obviously we have to do something to be able to defend that. We can’t allow that to happen. At this time of year 5-on-5 everybody plays so tight, and everybody plays a little bit more defensively than they would normally. So special teams become even more paramount in the whole scheme of things.
“We know we have to beat them 5-on-4. Hopefully we win that battle. Usually if we anticipate a close game and you win the special teams battle by a goal, it may make the difference.”