The Canadiens are down in Washington, DC tonight to face the Capitals and the home team will get their top centre, Nicklas Backstrom, back in the lineup tonight. After missing 40 games due to a concussion caused by Rene Bourque’s elbow in January while Bourque was a member of the Flames, Backstrom will line up with Alex Ovechkin on his left and Marcus Johansson.
Bourque was suspended five games by the NHL and was acquired by former GM Pierre Gauthier while he was suspended on Jan. 12, for Mike Cammalleri in a deal that also involved prospects and draft choices.
Katie Carrera blogging for the Washington Post writes that Caps coach Dale Hunter has coached just one game this year with Backstrom, Ovechkin and Mike Green all in the lineup. That contest was a 3-1 win over Calgary on Jan. 3, the game in which Bourque elbowed Backstrom.
Asked after the morning skate whether he was concerned that he’d be playing against Bourque in his first game back, Backstrom replied, “I don’t really care about that. It happened. I’m not going to waste any energy on that.”
When the Habs and Caps met on Jan. 18 at the Bell Centre, Washington’s Matt Hendricks fought Bourque and that probably settled things for now. With a playoff spot on the line for the Caps, it’s doubtful there will be any vendettas to settle tonight.
Just how much ice time Backstrom gets tonight is an open question and his condition on the bench will be monitored by the training and coaching staff. But if he’s able to contribute significant minutes, it will likely energize Ovechkin and add depth to their forward lines. Brooks Laich has been Ovie’s centre most recently, can move down to the third line and check the Habs’ top unit of Cole, Desharnais and Pacioretty. And that all means a great deal to Washington’s chances to holding on to eighth place.
The Caps are, of course, fighting for the final playoff spot in the East and with the Sabres loss to the Penguins on Friday night, Washington can break the tie in points they have with Buffalo (both have 86) if they beat Montreal tonight. They are ahead of Buffalo now in eighth by virtue of the first tie-breaker, most wins minus shootout wins (and they have a big edge in that tie breaker, 36 to 31).
As the Sabres showed in when beating the Caps 5-1 on Tuesday, Washington’s problems this season really begin in their own end. They’ve been outshot by opponents 46 times this season, compared to outshooting their foes on 31 occasions — this from what was once the most dynamic offensive team in the NHL. When the opposition gets right on top of the Caps’ defenders, they lack the ability to easily escape and move the puck to their forwards. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff got his forwards to attack the puckcarrier and it worked often, disrupting Washington’s attack before it started.
While the Caps have good news on Backstrom, however, the news is not so good on their starting goalie Tomas Vokoun. A former Hab draftee (he played one period for the club back in 1996-97 before the Predators picked him in the expansion draft of ’97), Vokoun could be gone for the rest of the regular season with a groin strain. He had missed six games with the injury but came back against the Bruins on Thursday. In that game he re-injured himself making a save late in the first period.
Michal Neuvirth came in and went the rest of the way in a 3-2 shootout win and he’ll most likely face the Habs tonight. He’s been the less consistent of the Caps goalies this season and, over his last five appearances, has a 3.54 average and .881 save percentage.
Based on their lines at the morning skate, here’s how the Caps might look tonight
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson
Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault, Alex Semin
Keith Aucoin, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer
Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle, Mike Knuble
Karl Alzner, Dennis Wideman
Roman Hamrlik, Mike Green
John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov