Good afternoon to all who are reading this blog, and if you are reading this blog you too are probably itching for the NHL to resume play tonight. Thankfully, there will be eleven (11) games played around the NHL tonight and two of them are Southeast Division match-ups: Caps - 'Canes in Raleigh, NC and Tampa Bay at Atlanta. The only Southeast Division team not in action tonight is the Florida Panthers who don't return to action until tomorrow when they host the Boston Bruins. Of course tonight's games mean the Capitals can recapture first place in the Division from Tampa Bay assuming the Caps win and the Thrashers manage to provide inhospitable environs to the Lightning and send them home with less than two points.
The two Southeast Division contests tonight might also provide a benchmark as to whether the Division can truly become a viable, exciting Division to watch in the NHL. Only two points separate the first place Lightning from the third place Thrashers as we approach the mid-point of the season; and while the "streaky" fourth place Carolina Hurricanes are nine (7) points behind the third place Atlanta Thrashers, they continue to demonstrate the ability to play with any other team in the league. As such it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Hurricanes could put together a good streak over the next six weeks and also find themselves in the hunt for the playoffs. Finally, to a lesser degree, the same can be said of the fifth place Florida Panthers who are but two points behind the Hurricanes. Also worth noting is that the both the Hurricanes and the Panthers have four (4) games in hand on both Washington and Atlanta and two (2) games in hand on Tampa Bay. It's all just further evidence that the Southeast Division is no longer the weakest division in the league. It also means that the hockey being played between so called "division rivals" is now an excellent sports entertainment product and with two games that have implications in the current standings on a holiday weekend, league watchers will no doubt be looking at the paid attendance at both these games to gauge the current health and longer term viability of the sport in the Atlanta and Raleigh-Durham markets. Of course that thought/statement also doesn't take into account an uncooperative Mother Nature.
Personally, I think this season is one that will begin to validate the efforts of the NHL to expand the appeal of the sport to the broader US markets in general and the Southeast, in particular. So I'm looking forward to seeing two well subscribed games tonight. I'm also hopefully optimistic that the Capitals will come off their Christmas "break" and capture two points tonight playing a grittier style of hockey than the Hurricanes have seen them play for quite some time. That said there continue to be some challenges for the Capitals coming in to tonight's game. On the sick and injured front, Matt Hendricks and Tom Poti are listed as questionable and Tyler Sloan (groin), DJ King (undisclosed), Jeff Schultz (thumb), Boyd Gordon (lower body), and Matt Bradley (finger) are all on Inured Reserve. Reports are that Michal Neuvirth was the first goaltender off the ice at this morning's practice skate so it appears he will be in net at the start of tonight's game. No reports as to what the lineup will look like relative to lines and defensive pairings but I'm going to guess the pairings will be: 52 - 23; 27 - 74; 4 - 21. Yep you got that right, I'm thinking with Poti and Sloan out and no word of Brian Fahey being called up, Brooks Laich will be on the blue line for the Capitals. If he's not, well somebody else you and I don't normally see line up there will be. That likely means the second and third lines will also be jumbled and the Capitals will need a solid. smart game from all the forwards but from Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Knuble, Johansson and Perreault in particular. Welcome to the future MP85 and MoJo90 - now it's your time.
With the injuries and other recent challenges that the Capitals have been having, in particular the drop in offensive production from their stars: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green, tonight might be the best chance the Hurricanes have at turning around this season's results when they face the Capitals. Tonight's meeting is the fourth between the two teams this season and so far Washington is 3-0 to Carolina's 0-2-1 record. If the Capitals win tonight it will be the first time since the 1997-98 season that the Capitals have swept their road games with Carolina. Given the Hurricanes' last tilt with the Capitals ended in a 3-2 shootout victory by Washington at DC's Verizon Center, I'm not expecting tonight's game to be an easy one for the Capitals to win. In addition to the fact that the Capitals are a little more banged up than the Hurricanes, forward Jiri Tlusty (arm) is the only Canes player out with an injury; is that fact that today's pre-game routine is different than most road games. Teams can’t travel on Christmas Day, so the standard practice of arriving in a road city the night before a game is out the window. That means the Caps flew out to Raleigh-Durham from Dulles this morning and into the unusual wintry conditions - see the picture out the window from Sergey Kocharov's twitter post when they landed here. They then bused directly to their morning practice and are in a city that is pretty paralyzed by the current conditions so actual attendance might be affected (the same goes for Atlanta too I suspect, though less so).
The last variable to whether the game will go as planned is this item - seems the officials are having difficulty getting there too according to Kukula's Korner. You can also see the anticipated line combinations for the Hurricanes recently juggled lines in the post as well. Somehow I think the NHL will find a way to get officials to RBC Center in time for the game, and if they don't I say who cares with the way some of the calls and officiating has been this year in the NHL, if the planned officials don't get there in time, there has to be a good set of officials from a "beer league" in and around the North Carolina State Capital who could give it a shot.
Well I'm thinking that this might be the game where Backstrom and Ovechkin get their scoring touch back. It's also going to have to happen for the Caps to control the game and win - Nicklas Backstrom has scored four of the eight goals the Caps have scored against the Canes this season. I also expect the Hurricanes to play Mike Green in a similar fashion to the way Pittsburgh did - very physically. However, I think Green is ready for it after the 34+ minutes of ice time against a Penguins team who never, ever missed an opportunity to hit him all night long on last Thursday night. The Caps also need another solid game from recent pickup Scott Hannan and I expect they will get it. So you can see, assuming this game is played tonight, it should be a battle and a good one to watch. The Capitals are working to get back on track, knowing that this month - December 2010 - will be the first sub 0.500 month after 21 months of playing over 0.500 hockey, so they will be working hard to close out their remaining two games this month with four standings points. The Hurricanes are in ninth (9th) place in the Eastern Conference and looking to start the after Christmas, pre-All Star Game portion of the season with their first win of the season over the Capitals. The desire and drive to win will therefore likely be there for both teams. So even if the crowd is small, the building and environs are cooler and snowy than usual in North Carolina, and the officials a little off their usual top form due to late arrival, this should be a good game to watch and with a few bonces going their way a Capitals victory.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!