Despite facing the league’s toughest schedule in the month of March, the Washington Capitals have managed to tread water and keep their playoff hopes afloat. Although some significant and elite foes remain ahead on the horizon for the Capitals in their final eight games of the regular season, their next four games will all be played against teams that are in the same boat as the Caps, on the outside and looking in on the chase for Stanley Cup playoff berths.
That stretch starts tonight against the Predators in Nashville. The Capitals host Dallas on Tuesday and then go back on the road to face New Jersey and the New York Islanders in a set of back-to-back games next weekend.
It’s imperative for the Caps to pull as many points as they can from this stretch of games. With the likes of St. Louis, Chicago and Tampa Bay still on Washington’s regular season docket, with five of their next six games on the road and with two more sets of back-to-backs ahead, the Caps don’t have much margin for misstep.
Going into Sunday’s slate of NHL activity, the Capitals are running ninth in the Eastern Conference standings. Washington trails Columbus and Detroit by two points in the chase for the two wild card playoff berths in the conference.
Washington’s six-game streak with at least a point came to a halt on Saturday with a 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins. The Caps have taken at least a point in six of their last seven (4-1-2), but they’ve won only one of their last four games (1-1-2).
The Preds’ own tragic number has dipped to five, putting the Preds on the precipice of elimination in their bid for a Western Conference playoff berth. Nashville is 1-5-1 in its last seven home games, with that lone win coming last week at the Buffalo Sabres’ expense.
The Caps expect to have Mikhail Grabovski back in the lineup tonight against Nashville. Grabosvki suffered an ankle injury in a Jan. 24 game against the Devils in New Jersey, and he has played in only one game since. That game was the Caps’ first game after the Olympic break, a Feb. 27 contest against the Panthers in Florida. Grabovski lasted only four shifts and less than three minutes of ice time that night before he was unable to continue.
Grabovski is fourth among all Washington forwards in average even-strength ice time per game this season, trailing only Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson.
Caps coach Adam Oates will ease Grabovski back into the lineup tonight, inserting him between Dustin Penner and Tom Wilson on the team’s fourth line. Chris Brown will be reassigned to AHL Hershey to make room on the roster and in the lineup.
Having two players (Penner and Grabovski) with double-digit goal totals on their fourth line may help the Caps to inject some much-needed five-on-five production into their game. Excluding empty-net goals, Washington has scored just 14 five-on-five goals in its last dozen games, posting a 5-5-2 mark during that span.
Jaroslav Halak will get the net tonight for Washington; he’ll be gunning for his 29th victory of the season. Halak has had good success against the Predators over the years. In 17 career appearances against Nashville, Halak is 10-3-3 with four shutouts, a 1.71 GAA and a .931 save pct.
In nine career starts at Bridgestone Arena, Halak is 5-2-1 with a shutout, a 2.15 GAA and a .915 save pct.
The Caps recalled defenseman Julien Brouillette from AHL Hershey on Sunday, and he will likely be in the lineup for Washington on Sunday against the Predators. We’re not sure how the Caps will elect to align defensively tonight, but the six defensemen are likely to be Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Mike Green, Brouillette and Patrick Wey.
Here’s how we expect the Caps’ forward lines to look tonight. Dates in parentheses are the dates of each player’s last five-on-five goal (empty-netters excluded).
Evgeny Kuznetsov (March 29) – Nicklas Backstrom (Feb. 27) – Troy Brouwer (Feb. 8)
Marcus Johansson (March 2) – Jay Beagle (March 2) – Alex Ovechkin (Feb. 27)
Jason Chimera (March 29) – Eric Fehr (March 22) – Joel Ward (March 20)
Dustin Penner (March 25) – Mikhail Grabovski (Dec. 23) – Tom Wilson (March 14)