It is time to ring out the old and ring in the new as the Washington Capitals end their greatest year and embark on a new one with hopes of repeating as Stanley Cup champions. After spending December playing almost exclusively Eastern Conference teams, the Caps will be taking on Western Conference opponents in the first three games of their Week 14 schedule before wrapping it up with a visit to the Motor City on Sunday.
Nashville Predators (Monday/12:30). The Caps will host the Nashville Predators on Monday afternoon to end the 2018 portion of the regular season schedule. This is one of those games of which it could be said that it is a matchup of potential Stanley Cup final opponents. The Predators have been as close to a perennial contender as there has been in the NHL since the 2004-2005 lockout. In 13 seasons preceding this one, Nashville reached the postseason ten times, reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2017, and going into Monday’s game only four teams have more regular season wins in that span. This game will be the 28th in the all-time series between the clubs, the Caps with a 13-11-2 record plus one tie.
The odd story line for the Preds going into this game is their road record. They started the season 8-0-0 on the road, outscoring opponents by a 32-15 margin. However, they are 0-8-2 in their last ten road contests and have been outscored, 37-20. It is the worst road record in the league since November 12th, when Nashville’s road woes started. They are the only team in the league without a road win in that span, and they have the third-fewest number of goals scored on the road in that span (20). Their power play is 29th in the league (8.6 percent), wasting the seventh highest number of power play chances on the road since November 12th.
For the Caps, this contest will be a study in competing trends. On the one hand, the Caps have lost three of their last four games against Nashville on home ice, all three losses of the one-goal variety, one of them in overtime. On the other, the Caps have yet to lose on a Monday this season, going 4-0-0.
St. Louis Blues (Thursday/8:00). The Caps will start the new year on the road, visiting St. Louis on Thursday. The Blues have had a disappointing year to date, standing in 14th place among 15 teams in the Western Conference. The silver lining there is that no team has played in fewer games than the Blues going into the new week (36). St. Louis has been making strides, albeit short ones, toward respectability, going 6-4-0 in their last ten games. They have been better of late on home ice, too. After starting the season 6-8-2 at Enterprise Center, they are 3-2-0 in their last five games on their home ice sheet. That record does include an ugly 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins to end last week’s schedule. That has been part of an all-or-nothing scenario for the Blues, who in their last three home games lost by a 7-2 margin to the Calgary Flames, beat the Buffalo Sabres, 4-1, and then dropped that decision to the Penguins.
And that brings us to the fact to keep in mind about the Blues. No team has allowed five or more goals more often on home ice than St. Louis this season. They have done so eight times in 21 home games to an 0-7-1 record. Compounding this problem is that only three teams in the league through Saturday had more games on home ice with two or fewer goals scored than the nine that the Blues had (Los Angeles had 12, Arizona had 11, and Carolina had 10). It is hardly surprising that despite being tied for the most home games played through Saturday’s schedule (21), only five teams had fewer standings points earned on home ice than the Blues (20). The Caps have a 44-40-1 record (with 12 ties) in the all-time series against St. Louis and have won five of the last six games against the Blues played in St. Louis.
Dallas Stars (Friday/8:00). Washington wraps up their seventh back-to-back set of games on Friday when they visit Dallas to meet the Stars. They will be looking for their fourth consecutive sweep of back-to-back games. For quite a while, Texas was an inhospitable place for the Caps, who went 3-12-1 in their first 16 games in Big D after the Stars moved there from Minnesota. However, the Caps visit Dallas having won consecutive games there (both in overtime) for the first time in team history.
The Stars have been a streaky team of late, a four-game winning streak followed by a four-game losing streak, and a 4-1-1 record in their last six contests as they head into the new week. They have been one of the more successful teams on home ice this season, although there have been cracks in that record recently. Overall, they are fifth in the league in home wins through Saturday (12) despite only three teams playing fewer home games than the 18 played by the Stars to date. They have done it by being stingy, allowing only 44 goals on home ice this season. Only the Vegas Golden Knights have allowed fewer (38 in 18 home games).
Some things to watch for in this game. First, only Vegas has more shutouts on home ice so far this season (four through Saturday) than Dallas (three). Second, each of the last seven games played in Dallas between these teams have been one-goal decisions, three of them in extra time (all of them Caps wins, the only wins the Caps have in that stretch). Third, no team has had fewer power play chances on home ice than the Stars (45). Fourth, only San Jose and Toronto have been shorthanded fewer times on home ice (48 and 46 times, respectively) than has Dallas (49). This game would seem unlikely to turn on special teams.
Detroit Red Wings (Sunday/5:00). The Caps wrap up their week with a visit to Detroit in what will be the third and final game of the season series between the teams. The Caps took the first two, both in Washington, by 3-1 and 6-2 margins. The Red Wings come into the new week spiraling out of control, a record of 1-6-2 in their last nine games. That streak started with their 6-2 loss to the Caps on December 11th, one of four games in which they allowed five or more goals, including their last three outings.
The Red Wings have not given fans much to cheer about on home ice so far. Their eight wins rank 29th in the league (the Philadelphia Flyers has seven wins in 17 home games; the Arizona Coyotes have seven wins in 18 home games). Perhaps the biggest factor in the Red Wings’ woeful home record is special teams. Their power play on home ice is the third worst in the league (13.0 percent entering the new week), and that is the good news. Their penalty kill at home is dead last (69.3 percent). At least they have cut down on those games in which they allowed multiple power play goals on home ice. After enduring six such games in their first 14 home contests, they have not allowed multiple power play goal games in any of their last six games at Little Caesars Arena (although they are just 9-for-13 killing penalties in those games — 69.2 percent).
Think this game will be close? The Caps and Red Wings played to one-goal decisions in 11 of the last 12 games played in Detroit, and the other featured an empty-net goal by the Caps in a 5-3 win in March 2012. Six of those games ended in extra time, each team winning three times. Washington is 6-3-3 over those last 12 games in Detroit.
- Brett Connolly. With the Caps playing two of three games on the road this week, it is worth noting that Brett Connolly is 4-5-9, plus-7, in his last nine games away from Capital One Arena. Three of those games were of the multi-point variety. It is quite a turnaround from his 0-4-4, plus-2, in his first nine road games this season. Then again, Connoly’s career numbers do tilt to the road side of the ledger. Of his 65 career goals, 35 were scored as a visitor, as were 70 of his 131 career points.
- Jakub Vrana. It is no surprise that Alex Ovechkin leads the team in goals in December (10). It might surprise a few folks that Jakub Vrana is second in goal scoring for the month (five). And again, with the Caps playing two of three games this week on the road, having four of those five goals away from Capital One Arena is something of which to take note. His plus-6 in six December road games is topped only by Matt Niskanen (plus-7).
- Caps Goaltenders. In 12 December contests, the duo of Braden Holtby and Pheonix Copley have stopped 338 of 366 shots, a .924 save percentage. Each has one shutout in December, Holtby turning away all 28 shots he faced in a 4-0 win in Columbus over the Blue Jackets on December 8th, and Copley stopping all 35 shots he faced in a 4-0 win in Ottawa over the Senators on December 22nd. Of 52 goalies having logged at least 200 minutes in December, Copley is fourth in save percentage (.944), while Holtby is 20th (.913), although only once in his last six outings has Holtby allowed more than two goals.
- Andre Burakovsky. In eight December games, Andre Burakovsky has one point, a goal in a 4-2 win in Arizona over the Coyotes on December 6th. Healthy scratches have crept into his resume, and when he has been in the lineup it has not been to productive effect. He is without a point in his last five games while getting just over 12 minutes per game in ice time.
- Lars Eller. Although he has been giving signs of coming out of a December slump (1-1-2 in his last five games), Lars Eller has still had a quiet month. He is one of six forwards to play in all 12 games in December, but of that group he is tied for the fewest goals (one) and has the fewest points (two).
- Evgeny Kuznetsov. It is odd to put a player in this category who has 11 points in 12 December games, but there is a fact that sticks out. In December, Kuznetsov has only one goal on 32 shots, his shot total tied for second among forwards for December (with Jakub Vrana). As it is, Kuznetsov has one goal on 50 shots over his last 19 games.
- With a win against Nashville on Monday, the Caps would close the book on 2018 with 50 regular season wins.
- The Caps have not allowed a power play goal in St. Louis since February 13, 2010, in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Blues. The Caps are 18-for-18 killing penalties over six games in St. Louis since then. In fact, since 2003, the Caps are 30-for-31 killing penalties in St. Louis over eight games (96.8 percent).
- All 24 skaters to dress for the Caps this season have at least one point, Tyler Lewington being the latest to join the group with his two-point night against Ottawa on Saturday.
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week…
- When Alex Ovechkin scores his next goal he will become the second player in league history to score 30 goals in each of his first 14 seasons, joining former Capital Mike Gartner.
- With five goals, Alex Ovechkin would pass Dave Andreychuk (640) for 14th place on the all-time NHL goal scoring list.
- Ovechkin’s next power play goal will break a tie with Brendan Shanahan for sixth place on the all-time power play goal list (both with 237).
- Nicklas Backstrom’s next assist will break a tie with Henrik Zetterberg for eighth place in career assists by a native of Sweden (each with 623).
- With two goals, T.J. Oshie will reach the 200-goal mark for his career.
- With two points, Evgeny Kuznetsov will reach the 300-point mark of his career.
- With two penalty minutes, Ovechkin will pass Chris Simon for 13th place on the all-time Capitals list (666).
- Nicklas Backstrom needs three power play goals to tie Dale Hunter for fourth place in team history (72).
- With his next goal, John Carlson will pass Jaromir Jagr (and Troy Brouwer, for that matter) for goals scored as a Capital (all with 83).
- With four assists, John Carlson will tie Adam Oates for 11th place in team history in assists (290).
- With one assist, Evgeny Kuznetsov will pass Alexander Semin for 20th place in team history in assists (both with 211).
- With two game-winning goals, Evgeny Kuznetsov would move into a tie for 20th place on the all-time franchise list, joining Craig Laughlin and Sergei Gonchar with 19. Ditto for John Carlson.
- Braden Holtby needs one shutout to tie Olaf Kolzig for the most shutouts by a goalie in Caps history (35).
- If Holtby records a point, he would join Kolzig as the only goalies in Caps history to score at least ten career points (Kolzig had 17).