Big Tilt – It was a week ago tonight that the caps and the Columbus Blue Jackets started their best-of-seven first-round series in Washington. When the two teams get together tonight in Columbus to clash for a fourth time, the Jackets will be seeking to restore their two-game advantage in the series while the Caps will be looking to even it up with a second straight win in Ohio’s capital city.
After the Jackets won the first two games – both in overtime – in Washington, the Caps rebounded to win Game 3 here on Tuesday night in double overtime. Lars Eller scored for Washington at the nine-minute mark of the second overtime, lifting the Caps to a 3-2 victory and paring the Jackets’ series lead to 2-1.
As is so frequently the case in a best-of-seven set, Game 4 will be a pivotal tilt.
This is familiar territory for the Capitals, who lost the first two home games of their previous playoff series – a second-round set against the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring. The Caps went to Pittsburgh and won Game 3 in overtime, just as they did here in Columbus two nights ago.
This is where Washington wants to start re-writing the script. The Caps fell behind early in Game 4 against the Pens and found themselves chasing that game. They ultimately lost that contest 3-2, and although they went on to force a deciding Game 7, they lost the series.
“There are different people on our team,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, “but I think there is a lesson to be learned from that series last year where we got a big win in Game 3, and then we laid an egg in Game 4. I think the guys have got to muster up a really good effort tonight and really go after this thing, because if we get home ice back, that would be [significant]. It’s a huge, huge game and it will swing the series one way or another. Guys have really got to bear down tonight and bring it so we give it our best to try to win this one.”
“We talked about that,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz, referring to Game 4 of the Pittsburgh series. “We came here obviously to try to get both games. They got both in our building; we’re only halfway there. I think we’ve tried to learn from every experience we’ve had in the playoffs. That’s one that we’ve mentioned and that we’ve talked about even after the game – let’s make sure that we’re focused on one thing, getting the game tonight. And we’ve got to come with the same urgency and all those things.
“If I remember right, we had a lot of opportunities in that game in [Pittsburgh]; we didn’t convert on them and it sort of went the other way on us. So we’ve just got to make sure that we’ve got the right focus, everybody involved and everybody pushing forward. We haven’t done anything yet. The last time I looked, I saw that we were losing the series. We need to get on common ground and make it a best-of-three.”
Tight Series – Each of the first three games of this series have gone to overtime and each game has been a bit longer then the one before it, so as they head into Thursday night’s Game 4, the two sides have played nearly the equivalent of four games.
The Capitals and the Jackets have played 227 minutes and 24 seconds of hockey in this series, and more than half of that total time (131:54) has been played with the score tied. Washington has led by a goal for 61:51 and it has led by two goals for 16:06. The Jackets own just 17:33 of lead time in the series, all of it in Game 2 and all of it by a single goal.
“It’s pretty evenly matched,” says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. “I thought last game was one of the better games we’ve played – just in terms of a good hockey game – in a while. Both teams were executing and working and sticking to their systems, and it made for really good hockey. I think we’re going to expect more of that tonight, a good playoff battle. And hopefully we’re just a little more prepared and a little more urgent to come out on top.”
The Caps and Jackets have played nearly 180 minutes of even-strength hockey in this series, and the Jackets have outscored the Caps 7-4 at evens while Washington has enjoyed a 6-4 lead in special teams scoring. The Caps are seeking more from their top six at even-strength; Washington’s four goals at even strength in the series have come from Devante Smith-Pelly, Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson and Lars Eller.
Not since Game 6 of their second-round series with the Pens last spring have the Caps gotten a five-on-five playoff goal from one of their big guns, and they’ve played a total of nearly 300 minutes of playoff hockey over that span.
“Even strength, yeah, we’re down a couple of pucks at even strength to [the Jackets],” says Trotz. “That’s an area where we’ve got to find a way to get it to the back of the net a little bit more. And that’s everybody, that’s all four lines. I think in the playoffs if you’re going to have success, all four lines have to contribute and I think we can with our lines. They all can contribute.”
Washington is shooting just 4.3% at even strength in these playoffs, scoring those four goals on 89 shots.
“I think we’re generating some looks,” says Niskanen, “but we’ve got to bear down on the second opportunity, have people there so we get a second opportunity, and be a little hungrier around that crease. When we get an opportunity to shoot the puck or make a play in the house – the last couple of games especially – we’ve either got to convert the play we’re making or put the puck in play so the next guy can bang it in.
“The key is having guys there. Secure the puck, make your plays on the rush or the cycle or whatever, but then we’ve got to have people around the blue paint so we can bang in those second chances. I think to get one rebound goal a game is huge. It showed last game when the winner ended up being a rebound, and [Brett Connolly] had one taken away with that kind of chaos-in-front type of look. I think we can challenge in there, and we should look to do that a little bit more.”
In the Nets – Braden Holtby was sharp on Tuesday in his first start of the 2018 playoffs, stopping 33of the 35 shots he faced over 89 minutes to earn the 30
thvictory of his Stanley Cup playoff career. Holtby is now 30-31 lifetime in the postseason, and he will be seeking to even up his career playoff mark tonight.
In six of his last seven playoff starts, Holtby has allowed two or fewer goals against. In one start and one relief appearance in this series, Holtby has worked 121:15 in the crease, the equivalent of a shade more than two regulation games. He has fashioned a 1.48 GAA and a .930 save pct. during that stretch.
Lifetime in the postseason, Holtby is 30-31 with four shutouts, a 1.98 GAA and a .932 save pct.
Sergei Bobrovsky gets the net again for the Jackets. Washington has reached Bobrovsky for 10 goals in the three games in this series, but the Caps have scored six of those goals on the power play. Bobrovsky has permitted just four even-strength goals in the equivalent of just under four regulation games, and he owns a .957 even-strength save pct. at even strength.
Over the course of his postseason career in the NHL, Bobrovsky is 5-11 with a 3.43 GAA and an .895 save pct.
All Lined Up – Here is how we expect the Caps and the Blue Jackets to look when they take to the ice on Thursday night for Game 4 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
18-Stephenson, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 25-Smith-Pelly
13-Vrana, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
65-Burakovsky (upper body)
13-Atkinson, 18-Dubois, 9-Panarin
38-Jenner, 71-Foligno, 26-Vanek
11-Calvert 17-Dubinsky, 77-Anderson
22-Milano, 55-Letestu, 28-Bjorkstrand
10-Wennberg (upper body)