A crucial juncture for Southeast Division rivals as the Carolina Hurricanes face the Washington Capitals for the first of two meetings this week.
Hurricanes Record: 14-9-1, 29 pts.
Capitals Record: 10-13-1, 21 pts.
Today begins the second half of the compressed 2012-13 hockey season for the Carolina Hurricanes, and what better way to kick it off than with a matchup against the Southeast division rival Washington Capitals. This will be the second of five meetings between the two teams this season and the second at Verizon Center; the teams will turn around and meet again at PNC Arena two nights from now. These next two game are crucial for both teams to set the tone for the rest of the season. The Hurricanes were buoyed by early season road victories that allowed them to weather the loss of key players and remain near the top of the Eastern Conference standings; wins will provide needed breathing room heading into a playoff push. The Capitals are fighting to regain hope for a playoff spot but could cover a lot of ground with victories this week.
The two teams met for the first time this season two weeks ago, on February 26th, in a game that featured much hoopla over the return of Hurricanes forward Alexander Semin to face his former team. Semin, who faced pre-game criticism from a few former teammates and was booed in the arena every time he touched the puck, had a solid performance in his return along with some help from goaltender Cam Ward (with a highlight reel save on Joel Ward), but it was not enough to overcome an injury-depleted line-up and the Hurricanes ended up on the wrong side of a 3-0 shutout loss.
So what has happened in the last two weeks?
For the Hurricanes
The Hurricanes have gone 5-1 in their last six games, with wins against the Penguins, Devils, Panthers (twice) and Sabres. Their last game was a 6-3 home win on Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils. Alex Semin had a goal and two assists (including this sequence from Dan Ellis to Semin to Jiri Tlusty for a coast-to-coast score) and was named the game's first star. The top line of Eric Staal/Semin/Tlusty has now combined for 77 points (32 goals, 45 assists) through 24 games and is a combined plus-53. The top line was split up to cover for injuries in the first game against the Capitals; that isn't likely to happen again tonight.
The Hurricanes have seen the return of four roster players in forwards Jeff Skinner and Tim Brent and defensemen Tim Gleason and Jamie McBain. Joni Pitkanen is close to returning but won't be in tonight's lineup. Chad LaRose remains sidelined with a concussion. There may finally be a light at the end of the tunnel for Tuomo Ruutu's return. Ruutu has started skating and may be cleared for full practice as early as this week.
On the minus side, the Hurricanes have lost Cam Ward for what appears to be at least the remainder of the regular season. Justin Peters has been called up from Charlotte to back up Dan Ellis. Peters is 1-1-0 with a .897 save percentage and 3.53 GAA in two starts this season and Ellis is 4-2-0 with a .920 save percentage and 2.60 GAA, including an assist and a win in Saturday's game. Peters skated in the "starters crease" at practice on Monday, but there is no official word as to who will be in net tonight.
Chris Terry received a well-deserved first NHL call-up (after four years of waiting) and was rewarded with a game-winning goal in Saturday night's game against the Devils.
The Hurricanes will not hold a pre-game skate today and will have limited media availability. If there is any information forthcoming from the team we will post an update.
Hurricanes.com - Tracking the Storm: Canes on Upswing at Halfway Point
Hurricanes.com - Tracking the Storm: What's in a Name?
Kirk Muller audio from Monday's practice
NewsObserver.com: Canes exceed expectations at midpoint of season
News Observer.com: Canes Now - Ruutu could return sooner than expected
NewsObserver.com: Hurricanes attendance jumps after lockout
GoCheckers.com: Terry Nets Winner in NHL Debut
For the Capitals
Since defeating the Hurricanes on February 26th, the Capitals have gone 3-3, with wins against the Bruins, Jets, and Panthers. Over the weekend the Capitals suffered a "New York sweep", losing to both the Islanders Saturday (5-2) and the Rangers on Sunday (4-1).
Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin was called out by his coaching staff and the media for his performance in Sunday's game (well chronicled here by Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times). The lowlight came when Ovechkin was penalized twice during the same sequence; once for tripping, and then again during the delayed penalty for holding. The Rangers scored during the delayed penalty and again during the ensuing power play, and the game was never really in reach from that point forward.
Braden Holtby has started 17 out of 24 games in net this season, and has performed admirably, recently earning himself a two-year contract extension. Holtby did not have a great showing on Sunday and was pulled from net in favor of backup Michael Neuvirth, a situation that did not sit well with the young netminder as he showed his frustration on his way through the tunnel (courtesy of Russian Machine Never Breaks). Holtby is 9-8-0 for the season with a 2.96 GAA and .909 save percentage (including a shutout against the Canes), and is expected to get both starts this week against the Hurricanes.
One area where the Capitals have excelled is on the power play, where they are ranked fourth in the league with a 25.6 conversion percentage. The team's top two goal scorers, Ovechkin (6 of 9) and Mike Ribeiro (5 of 9), are both scoring most of their goals on the man advantage.
Defenseman Steve Oleksy has been a boost to the Capitals line-up. Known more for penalty minutes than scoring during his time with the Hershey Bears, Oleksy has found a bit of a scoring touch in DC and has four points in four games, including his first NHL goal in Sunday's game versus the Rangers.
The Capitals continue to suffer through the on again/off again groin injury to defenseman Mike Green. Green won't be in the line-up tonight. Forward Marcus Johansson has returned from twelve game absence after suffering a concussion, and assisted on Oleksy's goal Sunday. John Erskine is day-to-day after suffering a hand/wrist injury against the Islanders on Saturday.
Washington Times: Marcus Johansson returns, receives coach's praise
Washington Times: Steve Oleksy with Caps for 'balance', Adam Oates says
Washington Times: Capitals haven't given up hope as key games with Carolina loom
Washington Post: What John Erskine's absence means for the Capitals
WashingtonCapitals.com: Caps Host Crucial Clash with Canes
Three questions are forthcoming later today, and we'll start the game thread at 6:30 pm.
And just one more note, I'll be back in the building again tonight. I won't be able to blog during the game (go figure that AT&T reception would be spotty at the Verizon Center so web pages are a little slow to load) but I'll likely be full of commentary on twitter if you want to check things out there. See you at the rink.