Capitals-Devils Preview

The Associated Press

Consistency has eluded the Washington Capitals for much of this season, but Michal Neuvirth has been very steady lately.

The Capitals' backup goaltender is expected to get a chance to continue his strong play Friday night against the New Jersey Devils, who hope the return of Patrik Elias will help them regain their scoring touch.

Washington is 8-12-1 in its last 21, posting three straight one-goal games on three occasions during that span but also having six games in which it scored at least four. However, the Capitals (17-14-1) enter Friday having won four of six thanks greatly to the 23-year-old Neuvirth.

Since replacing Tomas Vokoun for the third period of a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia on Dec. 13, Neuvirth has started three straight games and allowed a combined three goals as Washington has won twice.

"He's been solid," forward Troy Brouwer said. "He makes it easy for us to play in front of him. We know if we do make a mistake he's going to be there for us."

Another reason coach Dale Hunter might want to keep Vokoun on the bench Friday is that Neuvirth is 4-0-1 versus the Devils with a 1.18 goals-against average - his lowest against any opponent.

Neuvirth stopped 20 shots against Nashville on Tuesday in a 4-1 victory. After scoring once in three consecutive games, Washington took a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom before Alexander Semin and Brouwer scored 3:25 apart in the third.

Ovechkin's goal was his third in six games following a 12-game span in which he scored only once. The Capitals improved to 10-1-0 when getting a goal from Backstrom, who has scored seven in the last 14 games.

"When your top end guys score the confidence goes up for the rest of the bench," Hunter said. "The big guys scored. ... I liked the first period more than anything. We should have scored more."

New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer had a similar feeling after his team had a season-high, four-game win streak snapped with Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers. The Devils (18-14-1) outshot the Rangers 12-4 in the first period but only led 1-0 on Travis Zajac's first goal in three games following Achilles' tendon surgery.

"If we got the second goal, we could have taken charge of the game," DeBoer said. "I thought it was one of our better games, maybe our best 60-minute effort this year."

Elias' absence due to an illness may have played a role in New Jersey struggling to score after totaling 18 goals in the previous four games. He had four goals and two assists in that span, and DeBoer hopes he'll return for this contest.

"He's obviously a little drained and tired, but he battled through and got through an entire practice, which is a good sign," DeBoer said Thursday. "As long there are no setbacks, I would assume he would play."

Elias assisted on one of two second-period goals Nov. 12 as New Jersey rallied for a 3-2 shootout victory in Washington to split a home-and-home series. David Clarkson scored the winner in the tiebreaker to hand Neuvirth his first loss against the Devils.

The Capitals had won the three previous matchups by a combined 11-2 score.

New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur has lost five straight starts against Washington while posting a 4.32 GAA.

While Brodeur is 0-3 in his last four home starts, Johan Hedberg is 4-0-1 with a 2.18 GAA in New Jersey this season.

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