By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Coach Bruce Boudreau has plenty to be pleased about after his team's first two games. The Washington Capitals are scoring goals in bunches, the goaltending has been solid and special teams have been, well, special.
But, as Boudreau said after Monday's practice, it's far too early for any back-patting, particularly with the most challenging portion of the regular season schedule set to begin Tuesday against the undefeated Flyers.
Mike Knuble's return to Philadelphia marks the start of a stretch in which all six of the Capitals' opponents qualified for the playoffs last season, including two -- the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks -- who would surprise no one if they ended up playing for the Stanley Cup in June.
"It's going to be a huge test for us," Boudreau said. "But if we think we're good, we better back it up."
The grueling 12-day span couldn't begin in a more unfriendly environment than Wachovia Center, or against a more formidable opponent than the retooled Flyers. Already one of the league's meanest teams, Philadelphia General Manager Paul Holmgren made his club even more menacing this summer, adding 6-6, 213-pound, rugged defenseman Chris Pronger to a lineup that had five players rack up more than 140 minutes in penalties last season.
With Pronger patrolling the blue line, the Flyers finally have a defense to complement an impressive corps of forwards that boasts Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne and a healthy Daniel Briere -- and a lineup that, on paper, puts them in the conversation with Boston, Washington and Pittsburgh when discussing the Eastern conference's top teams.
"I've only seen him play once," Boudreau said of Pronger. "We won the game, but it came at a cost."
Boudreau was referring to the Capitals' 6-4 win in Anaheim on Nov. 19. Then a member of the Ducks, Pronger laid out Washington's No. 1 defenseman, Mike Green, with a devastating check. Green went into the boards shoulder first, missed the next three weeks and was troubled by the shoulder for the remainder of the season.
Meantime, the Flyers' supposed weakness -- goaltending -- has been anything but. Ray Emery couldn't find a job in the NHL last season after the Ottawa Senators cut ties with him following the 2007-08 season because of behavioral and conditioning problems. But Holmgren decided he was worth the risk, and now the 27-year-old ranks among the league leaders in wins, goals against average (1.00) and save percentage (.963) after opening the season with a shutout streak of 111 minutes 12 seconds in wins over New Jersey and Carolina.
Tuesday will mark the Flyers' first home game that counts since they were eliminated in Game 6 of the quarterfinals by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. It was also the last game on Broad Street for Knuble, who spent four seasons with the Flyers before signing with the Capitals on July 1.
"You want to play well," Knuble said. "You want to come out with a win, a little more than other places. It's kind of ironic to play in the last home game there in Philly and then play the first home game the next season -- but on the other team. It's a great city to play hockey in and a tough place to play road hockey in."
The first week for the Capitals has gone about as well as could have been expected. They are 2-0-0 and leading the Southeast Division after easy wins over Boston and Toronto. They've scored 10 goals and yielded five while going 3-for-7 on the power play and killing off eight consecutive shorthanded situations. But Boudreau is eager to find out exactly how his team measures up to the league's elite.
He should have his answer in less than two weeks.
"We have to play them at some point," Boudreau said of the six-game stretch. "We're healthy. Sometimes when you play them in November and February, you might have half of your good players out of the lineup. The big test is where do we have to go? People say you're off to a good start. But at 2-0, there's still 99 percent of the schedule left."
Capitals Notes: The forward lines were unchanged from Saturday's 6-4 win over Toronto. An adjustment, however, is expected on the blue line. Boudreau said either Jeff Schultz or Tyler Sloan will suit up against the Flyers. Both were healthy scratches for the first two games.