Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
The Washington Capitals host the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night for the first meeting of the season between the two teams. The Capitals took two of their three games against the Sabres last year, including a 4-3 shootout victory in Washington on December 15. Action from Capital One Arena can be seen on NBC Sports Washington beginning at 7 PM ET.
After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth consecutive season, the Sabres have been one of the league’s most surprising teams this season, going 9-2-2 in their first 13 games — including 4-2-1 on the road — and are currently tied with the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the Atlantic Division with 20 points. They are 4-1-1 in their last six games. The Sabres begin a set of back-to-back games on Friday in Washington and will return home immediately after the game to host the New York Islanders on Saturday night.
Center Jack Eichel leads the Sabres with 10 assists and 17 points this season, while his seven goals are tied with forward Jeff Skinner for the team lead. Skinner, who signed an eight-year contract extension in Jun ethat carries an average annual value of $9 million, led the Sabres with 40 goals a season ago, his first in Buffalo.
The Sabres’ 2.46 goals-against average per game is the sixth-best in the NHL while their 3.31 goals-per-game average is 11th-best. Their power-play has been deadly this season; their 29.8% power-play efficiency is second in the league behind only the Bruins (30.9%). This is a Sabres team that allows a lot of shots as their average of 33.5 shots-against per game is the sixth-most in the NHL.
The Sabres made a lot of acquisitions over the offseason, including former Capitals’ forward Marcus Johansson, who has posted four goals, nine points, and a +5 rating this season; defensemen Colin Miller (previously with Vegas) and Henri Jokiharju (previously with Chicago), who each have four assists and a +3 rating; and forward Jimmy Vesey (New York Rangers), who has tallied two assists and a +3 rating. Their only notable loss in the offseason was forward prospect Alexander Nylander, who was dealt to the Blackhawks in the Jokiharju trade.
Goaltender Carter Hutton, who is 6-1-1 with a .926 save percentage, a 2.21 goals-against average, and two shutouts this season, will likely start against the Capitals. In nine career games against the Capitals, the 33-year-old is 3-3-2 with an .888 save percentage and a 3.19 goals-against average. He made 57 saves on 62 shots in two games against the Capitals last season.
The Capitals return home from a season-long five-game road trip, where they went 4-0-1, and begin a short two-game homestand on Friday night. Their 9-2-3 start set a franchise record for points earned during October. Washington will play nine of their next 13 games at Capital One Arena. While they have won only two of their first five home games, they have earned points in four of them (2-1-2) and won their last two.
Defenseman John Carlson has been on a tear this season as his 16 assists and 23 points are only one and two, respectively, behind Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl for the league lead. His point total set a new franchise record for points by a defenseman in a month and set the mark for the second-most points in NHL history by a defenseman in October. He has scored four goals in his last four games, including two in the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime win at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. He has only gone pointless in a game two times this season. His +7 rating is two behind defenseman Radko Gudas for the team lead while his seven goals are tied with forward T.J. Oshie for second behind captain Alex Ovechkin (11), who has 10 goals and 17 points in his last 11 games, recording points in 10 of them.
Despite having one of the toughest schedules in the league, the Capitals enter Friday in first place in the NHL with 21 points, though they are fourth in points percentage. They have earned points in seven straight games (6-0-1) and eight of their last nine (7-1-1).
Friday could serve as a challenge if they’re without centers Evgeny Kuznetsov, who took a maintenance day on Thursday after crashing into the boards against Toronto but returned later on, and Nic Dowd, who each left the Toronto game with a lower body injury. Neither is certain for Friday’s game.
The Capitals’ 53 goals this season lead the NHL while their 25.5% efficiency on the power-play is tied with the Vancouver Canucks for fifth-best. They have also been strong on the penalty kill as their 85.2% efficiency ranks sixth-best in the league.
Goaltender Braden Holtby, who is 5-1-3 with an .888 save percentage and a 3.55 goals-against average this season, is expected to start Friday night. In 14 career games against the Sabres, the 30-year old is 9-4-1 with a .911 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average. He made 36 saves in his lone home start against the Sabres last season, which came in a 2-1 win on December 21.
- Carlson is currently one point shy of passing Kevin Hatcher (426) for the third-most points in franchise history by a defenseman
- Center Lars Eller is expected to play in his 700th career NHL game
- The Capitals have led their games for 387:56, the second-most time in the NHL
- The Capitals have scored a goal in 28 of their last 33 periods of hockey, including 11 periods with at least two goals
By Harrison Brown