You Again –
Three nights after they met in Columbus, the Capitals and the Blue Jackets will battle once again, this time on the Capital One Arena ice on Friday night. Thanks to Nicklas Backstrom’s game-winning goal in the final minute of regulation and 37 saves from Braden Holtby, the Caps skated off with a 3-2 victory in Tuesday’s tilt.
With the win, the Caps ended a stretch of seven straight one-game road trips with an impressive 4-1-2 mark. Columbus dropped its fourth straight game (0-3-1).
The Caps and Jackets have played some entertaining games against one another since they landed in the Metro Division together, and Washington winger Tom Wilson talked about how much he enjoys playing against the Jackets and how much he likes playing at Columbus’ Nationwide Arena. A couple of days later, he spoke more about the rivalry between the two teams.
“There were some pretty fun nights three or four years ago with [then-Caps center Michael Latta] and [then-Jackets winger Jared] Boll and [then-Jackets defenseman Dalton] Prout and [then-Caps defenseman John Erskine]. We had some good times in their building, and it’s definitely a fun place to play.
“They’ve got a hard-working team and they always play you tough. I definitely think that’s an opponent where you know that when they’re coming here or when we go there, it’s going to be a tough match-up. They’re going to work real hard and we’ve got to be ready for it, and the other night we were.”
Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Jackets were seen by most as one of the better teams in the division, so it’s a bit surprising to see them occupying the second wild card playoff berth at the moment. They’re probably a better team than they’ve showed so far this season.
“I think they’re a competitive group,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz of the Jackets. “Columbus has made some great strides the last couple of years. You saw last year that they were a beast, and they still are. They’re hard to play against, and their DNA is to take things hard to the net in a certain way. It leads to a little bit of bitterness, I guess. That’s okay; that’s what playoffs are.
“When you start playing teams in back-to-backs or if you end up playing teams in a playoff series, you’re going to have a little bit of desire to punish the other guy a little harder. You know what they’re going to bring every day. It’s always a good test. They’re going to be very urgent in this game. They lost their home game, if you will, so you know that they’re going to be really urgent. It’s hard in this league to win back-to-backs, but it’s not impossible. So our goal is to make sure that we hold home ice advantage [Friday].”
Metro Chase –
heading into Friday’s slate of NHL activity, the Capitals have played more games against Metropolitan Division opponents (18) than any other team in the division. Along with Pittsburgh (11-5-0), the Caps are one of only two Metro teams that has won more than half its games against divisional foes; the Caps are 10-5-3 vs. Metro opponents this season.
“I think probably us and the Penguins,” begins Trotz, “we know that someone in our division is going to get points. And if we can just take care of business on our end, then someone is also going to lose some points each night. If we can just stay really firm and focused in what we do, get our points against our opponents and take a game-by-game mentality, then we might be able to get some separation on some teams, and that’s the good thing.”
After Friday night’s game with the Jackets, the Caps will play only one of their next 15 games against a Metro opponent. That lone Metro game is a return visit to Columbus on Feb. 26.
Many Metro teams – including the Jackets – are in the midst of Metro-heavy portions of their respective schedules, a stretch the Caps just emerged from themselves. Washington plays its 11
game of its last 18 against a Metro opponent on Friday, and the Caps are 5-2-3 in the first 10 of those 11 contests.
“When you play divisional opponents,” says Trotz, “they come at you real hard and also you can lose ground on people quickly as well. We’ve just got to take care of our own business. There are some teams that want to catch us, and there are some teams that are starting to get a little bit out of reach.
“If we can get a gap against anybody this time of year, we’ll take it. You look at the Metro or you look at the Central, and they’re boxed pretty good. You have a bad week and you’re right back out of the mix.”
The Season Of Living Dnagerously –
Last season, the Caps finished atop the NHL in fewest goals against. This season, the Capitals have dipped down to 17
in the league in that department. Last season, the Caps were 16
in the circuit in high danger scoring chances against (per naturalstattrick.com), and they’ve dipped to 30
in that category this season.
The New York Islanders rank last in the NHL in high danger scoring chances, and they’re also last in the league in goals against. The Caps can thank their goaltenders for keeping a fair number of those high danger chances out of the net, relatively speaking, but the idea from here on out has to be the curtailing of those high danger chances.
“As always, you need to make good plays with the puck exiting your zone and moving through neutral,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “You can avoid some free ones there. A lot of teams’ best chances come off turnovers, because we’re not in good defensive position – we’re thinking offense.
“I think forwards’ back-pressure is really key, to force the other team to make plays quicker than they want by putting a little heat on them from behind. I think our [defenseman] have to continue to work at our gap and stick position, and force a few more dumps. I think that can only benefit us by eliminating some of the rushes and delays, and second wave attacks. If our gap improves, then the [defensive] zone is all about details and commitment to it. So we’ll keep harping on those things.”
As Niskanen says, improving breakouts will help spend less time in the defensive zone and should also benefit the Caps’ attack as well. Washington sits atop the Metro Division with a third of the season to go, but its play in its own end has to improve markedly if the team is going to write a more favorable ending to its season this spring.
“That’s the only way that we’re going to have a real chance of winning,” says Holtby, if we realize that we realize we can and we have to be better in a lot of areas, individually and as a team. The standings hopefully don’t play too much into our heads as a group, and we can really just focus on the areas that we know we can be better at, and we focus on reaching our potential as a team, and not just winning games. I think the focus has to be on building a team that can consistently win games.”
Making the right reads, then making the right decision with the puck and then executing the play are all critical elements in fostering improvement in this regard.
“I think the main thing is knowing the risk of a play,” says Holtby. “You obviously don’t want to go through games making safe play after safe play; it’s hard to create anything that way. But know what plays are real dangerous, and know where you can take a risk – where you have support and you can try to beat a guy one-on-one on the blueline or something. That comes from awareness, awareness of your defense being tired and knowing that sometimes you need to get the puck in so they can change, or not get caught on a turnover while the [defense] are changing or something like that.
“Those are areas where as a group it comes from awareness individually and communication through the team. That’s an area where I think we’re trying to get better.”
In The Nets –
Holtby gets the net again for Washington on Friday, after his excellent bounce-back game against the Jackets in Columbus on Tuesday. Holtby made 37 saves – including all 17 shots he saw in the second period – to earn his 27
victory of the season.
Lifetime against the Jackets, Holtby is 13-3-2 with a shutout, a 2.49 GAA and a .916 save pct.
Sergei Bobrovsky gets the net again for Columbus. Backstrom’s late goal hung a loss on Bobrovsky, who has now won just one of his last seven starts (1-5-1) with a 2.88 GAA and a .912 save pct. over that span. The Jackets have scored 16 goals in support of Bobrovsky in those last seven starts.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Bobrovsky is 6-9-4 in 20 appearances with a 3.01 GAA and a .907 save pct.
All Lined Up –
Here’s how we expect the Capitals and the Blue Jackets to look when they take the ice on Friday night at Capital One Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 39-Chiasson
18-Stephenson, 83-Beagle, 25-Smith-Pelly
9-Panarin, 18-Dubois, 13-Atkinson
38-Jenner, 17-Dubinsky, 77-Anderson
28-Bjorkstrand, 10-Wennberg, 71-Foligno
11-Calvert, 45-Sedlak, 36-Jokinen
22-Milano (torn oblique muscle)
27-Murray (upper body)