The Capitals will get Alex Ovechkin back from his three game suspension when they visit the Canadiens on Saturday afternoon. The Washington captain should be fired up — and the Bell Centre fans might be as well — as he pulls on a game sweater for the first time since Brendan Shanahan gave him a little vacation (that included his noisy refusal to play in the All-Star Game and his quiet trip to Miami Beach).
“I miss hockey a lot,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s nine days, almost 10 days without hockey. I’m pretty depressed, but practicing is good.”
Washington went 1-1-1 in Ovie’s absence, and coach Dale Hunter credited Mathieu Perreault (who had a hat trick against the Bruins), Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson with stepping up their play.
Still, losing to the Panthers 4-2 in Sunrise, FL, on Wednesday dumped the Caps from the third seed (by virtue of holding the top spot in the mighty Southeast Division) down to ninth in the Eastern Conference. They’re only a point behind Florida.
The Caps visited Montreal just two weeks ago, shutting out the Habs 3-0. It was a rare road victory for them. They have just six victories in their last 23 away games.
The highlight for the home team that night was Rene Bourque squaring off with Matt Hendricks as Hendricks sought to avenge Bourque’s concussion-causing elbow to Caps’ centre Nicklas Backstrom’s head while Bourque was playing for the Flames (and Backstrom is still not skating; there is no timetable for his return). After that, not much good happened for the home team other than holding Washington to just 16 shots while taking 31 of their own, all of which were stopped by Michal Neuvirth.
It’s hard to imagine Hunter playing Neuvirth on Saturday afternoon, however; not after he gave up this goal to Mikael Samuelsson for the game’s first tally on Wednesday:
Neuvirth explained “I thought he was going to rim it. I was cheating a little bit and he caught me. . . . I left the post and I couldn’t get back in time.” So he could be watching this tilt from the folding chair in the visitors’ runway. That would mean Tomas Vokoun will be in goal, and he’s pretty much been anointed the Caps’ number 1 goalie since Hunter arrived, starting 14 of the past 17 games.
On defence, Mike Green remains sidelined as he recovers from sports hernia surgery, although he is skating again and could be back when these team’s next meet later this month.
So Dennis Wideman, the Caps lone All-Star Game representative, will again run things on the blue line. He was partnered with Jeff Schultz for the Panthers game, the first time in 13 games Schultz dressed. Schultz can be an effective physical, crease-clearing defenseman but has played in just seven of the Capitals’ 28 games since Hunter was hired on Nov. 28.
John Carlson and Karl Alzner remain the top shutdown pair and expect to see them against the Habs Pacioretty-Desharnais-Cole trio. Roman Hamrlik and a very promising rookie Dmitry Orlov round out the defence corps. Hamrlik leads them with 100 blocked shots, Carlson and Alzner are not far behind him and Wideman’s not far behind them.
Getting Ovechkin back — especially if he plays remotely like the Ovie of old — allows Hunter to put two decent offensive lines out. Ovie will likely skate with Johansson and Semin while a fairly new threesome of Brooks Laich between Hendricks and Troy Brouwer has made some noise in the last couple of games, strong on the forecheck with some offensive pop. Each has scored a goal since the line was formed. Following the extended slump he was in the last time these teams played, Laich has three points in his last four games.
The Caps recalled Keith Aucoin from AHL Hershey this week and waived goon Joel Rechlicz, who played all of 4:16 in the Florida two road games, with the intention of returning him to Hershey if he goes unclaimed by noon Saturday. Some in DC thought the Caps had summoned Reichlicz for another go at Bourque. Aucoin is leading the AHL is scoring with 70 points, a league-best 59 of them assists. He last played an NHL game Dec. 28, 2010 against Montreal.
When these teams last met, as we noted in our preview, the Caps had gone 12-9-1 under Hunter, exactly what they were under Bruce Boudreau. Since then, they are 1-2-2.
Here’s how the Caps lines looked in practice late this week:
Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson. Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault, Mike Knuble
Keith Aucoin, Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward
John Carlson, Karl Alzner
Dmitry Orlov, Roman Hamrlik
Dennis Wideman, Jeff Schultz