The phrase “must-win game” has been thrown around for the Washington Capitals more than once over the past few weeks, but tonight’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena in Raleigh has finally reached the point that everyone from players to fans agrees that it applies.
Win and the Caps keep their already slim hopes of making a run at the Southeast Division title alive. Lose and that hope will likely be snuffed out entirely. No pressure, right?
Adding to the stress level is the way Carolina handled Washington so easily on Tuesday night in D.C. Justin Peters continued his personal mastery of the Capitals, and the Hurricanes got scoring from players other than their usual suspects in a 4-0 win. The two teams haven’t played a game yet this season where both teams have found the net.
If the Caps are going to take their turn back in the shutout game, they’re going to be doing it with someone who hasn’t recorded one yet this year. Michal Neuvirth will get his first start in net since February 7, hoping to pick up what would be just his second win of 2013.
There are changes in the rest of the lineup as well, with Adam Oates choosing to shuffle the deck with his forward lines to find something that will jolt multiple slumping players back into productivity. The biggest shift is to the top line, which will reunite Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and hope to get them some space by teaming them with Matt Hendricks. Mike Ribeiro, who’s gone from team MVP to possible trade bait, gets bumped to the third line, while enigmatic Marcus Johansson will get a shot at centering Troy Brouwer and Eric Fehr on the second line.
Injuries will force the defense to look the same way it did on Tuesday, when the average age was under 25 and rookie Steven Oleksy was actually the oldest guy on the blue line. Mike Green and John Erskine are still out and Tom Poti is once again doubtful, so it will be a youth movement again, for better or worse.
The Hurricanes have some injury problems of their own, but little trouble with their best players putting up points. In a twist that surely must irritate Capitals fans, Alexander Semin has blossomed in his first year in Carolina, leading his team with 20 assists and racking up 13 points in his last seven games.
The Caps can’t worry about any particular opposing player, though. They need to tighten up their own game and worry about cutting down on defensive breakdowns, costly turnovers and poorly timed penalties. It’s a big task, especially on the road, but one that needs to be done to avoid writing off the rest of 2013.
Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes
Start time: 7 pm EST
TV: NHL Network