Two of the Eastern Conference’s hottest teams in recent weeks get together on Sunday when the Capitals host the Flyers.
Both Philadelphia (22-15-5) and Washington (18-20-5) have played their best hockey of the season since Dec. 22. The Flyers are 6-1-2 in that stretch, including five wins during a six-game road trip, and are six points behind the division-leading New Jersey Devils in the tightly packed Atlantic.
The Capitals, meanwhile, have gone 5-1-2 since Dec. 22, including two wins over Ottawa—the Eastern Conference’s best team—in which they scored 14 goals.
They were an NHL-worst 6-14-1 a month earlier when they fired coach Glen Hanlon and turned to Bruce Boudreau. Since the coaching change, Washington has made up ground quickly in the Southeast—the league’s worst division—going 12-6-4 and getting back in the playoff picture.
Goaltender Olaf Kolzig has been busy lately, starting the Capitals’ last 10 games. He came 3:21 shy of a shutout Wednesday, making 18 saves in a 2-1 victory over Colorado for Washington’s fourth win in five games.
“I never think shutout,” Kolzig said. “For me, the bottom line is the win. Shutouts are a nice bonus. If we only scored one goal, the shutout would have been key.”
Kolzig is 3-1-0 with a 2.24 goals-against average in his last four starts against the Flyers. Backup netminder Brent Johnson, who missed the past six games with a sprained left knee, returned to the team after being recalled Saturday following a one-game rehab assignment.
But it’s been the Capitals’ impressive offense that’s been the key to their recent victories. They’ve scored 21 goals—six by Alexander Ovechkin—in their past four wins.
Ovechkin is again one of the NHL’s leading scorers with 32 goals. This will be his first game since signing a $124 million, 13-year contract extension Thursday—the first $100 million deal in league history.
“I know it’s extra pressure, but I have to play the same,” he said. “If you think of pressure, it’s hard for you. I have to play the same way—play more, play better.”
Ovechkin has 10 goals and eight assists in 10 career games against Philadelphia, and has a current nine-game point streak versus the Flyers.
The Flyers have won six of their past eight, thanks largely to goaltender Antero Niittymaki, who had won four in a row prior to Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to Boston, which dropped Philadelphia to 1-2-3 in its past six home games.
“It seems like every home game we shoot ourselves in the foot for 40 minutes. We just have to come out with that fire,” forward Scott Hartnell told the Flyers’ official Web site.
Hartnell has five goals and two assists in his past three games.
While Niittymaki had been the hot hand between the pipes, Martin Biron is expected to start against Washington. Biron has gone through somewhat of a rough stretch in net, posting a 2-3-2 record with a 3.10 GAA in his last seven starts.
But he’s 4-1-1 with a 2.55 GAA in his last six games against the Capitals.
The Flyers are 1-4-1 in their last six against Washington. The teams have split two meetings this season, with each club winning on the road.