After a challenging week that ended in a statement game against the league’s best team, the Caps, now looking up at the New York Islanders at the top of the Metropolitan Division, head off on a week where they get to face that team once more, along with a pair of divisional opponents, and a contest against their former coach who…oh heck, we’re all looking at Game 2 against Tampa Bay.
New Jersey Devils (Tuesday/7:30). By the time the New Jersey Devils defeated the Vancouver Canucks last Friday, they were eliminated from the postseason, thanks to a Columbus Blue Jackets win over the Carolina Hurricanes earlier that evening. So, the Devils will take small victories and improvements where they can over their last nine games, and one thing they can lean on heading into the new week is having won two of their last three contests after enduring a seven-game losing streak.
For a time, it looked as if the Devils might build on last season’s trip to the postseason, their first playoff appearance since they lost the 2012 Stanley Cup final. They won their first four games of the season, and as late as November 23rd had a .500 standings points record (9-9-3). However, since then the Devils are 18-28-6, the fourth-worst record in the league.
Their problem has been an inability to keep opponents off the scoreboard. The 178 goals allowed since that 9-9-3 start are second-most in the league (Chicago has allowed 182 in four fewer games over that span). If there is one thing in which the Devils can take comfort, it is that they have been a decent team on home ice, where they will return against the Capitals after a six-game road trip. New Jersey is 17-12-6 at Prudential Center this season, although even here there is a cloud obscuring the silver lining. The Devils have lost their last three games on home ice (0-2-1). And, since hanging eight goals on the Chicago Blackhawks in an 8-5 win on January 14th, the Devils have scored only 30 goals in 13 games on home ice (2.31 per game) while going 4-7-2.
Tampa Bay Lightning (Wednesday/7:30). The Caps wrap up their last back-to-back set of games for the regular season when they return home on Wednesday night to host the Lightning, who defeated the Caps, 6-3, on Saturday night in a game much closer than the final score indicated. Not surprising for the team with the best record in the league, the Lightning are a very tough road club. They have won eight of their last nine road contests heading into the new week, outscoring opponents by a 34-20 margin. Their 25-7-2 mark on the road overall is considerably better than the next best club (Toronto: 21-10-4). Those 25 road wins are more than all but two teams in the league have at home, and one of those is the Lightning (30). The Boston Bruins are the other (28).
The Lightning just do not seem to be bothered by unfamiliar surroundings. They have a goal differential of plus-26 on the road (tops in the league), have a 33.0 percent power play (second), an 83.5 percent penalty kill (fifth), a plus-146 shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 (fifth), and a 52.32 shots attempts-for percentage at fives (fifth) on the road.
This is now the winningest team in franchise history, their win over the Caps being their 55th of the season and topping last year’s club (54) that lost to the Caps in the Eastern Conference final. It is the third team in club history to win at least 50 games, the 2014-2015 team winning 50 times. With only 13 losses in regulation time this season, this club is all but certain to set a franchise record for fewest regulation losses, currently 22 by the 2003-2004 team than won the only Stanley Cup in franchise history. Those 55 wins in 72 games remain on a pace to challenge the all-time record in the NHL for wins in a season, the Detroit Red Wings finishing the 1995-1996 season with 62 wins.
Minnesota Wild (Friday/7:00). There might not be a harder team in the league to figure out than the Minnesota Wild. Former Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau’s squad staggers from night to night looking like a team that can make a deep postseason run one night to looking more like a draft lottery team another. For example, over their most recent 26 games going into the new week, they have winning streaks of three and five games, and they have losing streaks of three, four, and five games, going 11-9-6 overall.
The inability to get much traction in their performance has left the Wild dancing on the edge of the playoffs, currently sitting one point behind the Arizona Coyotes for the second wild card spot in the Western Conference. The problem for the Wild has been a curious inability to win on home ice. They have not won consecutive games on home ice since early December and have gone 5-11-5 in 21 home games since then.
It makes getting on the road something of a relief for the Wild, who are 5-1-1 in their last seven games away from Xcel Energy Center. However, while they do have a respectable 19-15-2 road record this season overall, a significant weakness they have will play out against one of the Capitals’ strengths on home ice. Minnesota has a 76.5 percent penalty kill on the road, 28th in the league. That will be pitted against the Caps’ seventh-ranked power play on home ice (24.8 percent). In their last ten road games, the Wild are just 20-for-28 on the penalty kill (71.4 percent).
Philadelphia Flyers (Sunday/12:30). The Flyers might have saved their season, or they might have merely delayed the inevitable with a thrilling come-from-behind in the last minute 2-1 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday night. With that win, the Flyers go into the week with a 35-29-8 record, six points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Confrence.
The Flyers will be looking not only to keep their dim postseason hopes alive, but to salvage something from the wreckage of their season series with the Caps, who have scored five goals on the Flyers in each of the three games played in this season’s series so far, all Washington wins. Do not sell the Flyers short in this regard just because this game is being played in Washington. The Flyers are 9-2-1 in their last dozen road games, the third best road record in the league since January 19th and one that includes wins in Boston, in Minnesota, on Long Island (twice), and that win in Pittsburgh on Sunday night. They have outscored opponents over those last 12 road games, 44-32.
One wonders, however, if there is not an element of smoke and mirrors about that recent road record. Over those 12 road games, the Flyers have been outshot by a whopping 438-336, and their shot attempts differential at 5-on-5 (minus-202) is second-worst in the league, one shot attempt better than the Devils. What they have done superbly on the road, though, is kill penalties. Over their 9-2-1 run, they have killed off 26 of 29 shorthanded situations, the 89.6 percent kill rate being fourth-best in the league on the road over that span.
- John Carlson. Over his last 15 games, John Carlson is 4-11-15, plus-2, tops among all NHL defensemen in points over that span. He takes a six-game points streak into the new week (2-5-7).
- Tom Wilson. Since February 1st, Tom Wilson defines “hot” in more than one way. He joined the 20-goal club for the first time in his career on Thursday night against Philadelphia, but more broadly, he is the only player in the league since February 1st to record at least ten points (7-6-13) and log at least 40 penalty minutes (55). He is also a plus-7 in that span covering 22 games.
- Nicklas Backstrom. For almost his entire career, Nicklas Backstrom has been anything but a me-first sort of player, but he has displayed a greater inclination to shoot the puck recently. His 52 shots on goal since February 1st are second on the club (Alex Ovechkin: 94). And he has five goals to show for it.
- Nick Jensen. When a defenseman whose contributions do not so much come in the offensive statistics as they do in defending and turning the puck the other way, a bad plus-minus week can stand out. That was the case for Nick Jensen who finished last week with three straight “minus” games (minus-5 overall). In the offensive end he had just one shot on goal for the four-game week after posting 17 in his first six games with the Caps since coming to the team in trade from Detroit (all Caps wins).
- Chandler Stephenson. After sitting out since dressing for a 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on February 23rd, Chandler Stephenson was in the lineup for the last two games last week. However, he did not record a shot on goal in either of those games and was minus-3. He is without a shot on goal in his last four games overall and is without a point in his last 12 games.
- Travis Boyd. After posting a three-game points streak two weeks ago, Travis Boyd went without a point in four games last week. Part of the difficulty might be lack of opportunity; he averaged just 8:26 in ice time over those four games after averaging 10:10 over his first 42 games played this season. He is without a goal in his last 20 games.
- The Caps go into the new week having played in five consecutive games that featured an empty net goal for one team or the other, three for the Caps (vs. Devils, Jets, and Flyers) and two against (vs. Penguins and Lightning, who scored two empty netters on Saturday).
- When the Caps take the ice against Tampa Bay on Wednesday, it will be the 3,500th regular season game in franchise history.
- It would take an odd set of coincidences, but it is possible that three Capitals could reach the 20-goal mark in the same game this week. Brett Connolly (19), Evgeny Kuznetsov (18), and Nicklas Backstrom (18) are on the brink. If they do it, in whatever games it happens, that would make seven Capitals with 20-goal seasons. It would tie this club with the 2009-2010 team for most in the post-2004-2005 dark season period, but it would still trail the 1992-1993 club that had nine 20-goal scorers:
Peter Bondra: 37
Kevin Hatcher: 34
Dmitri Khristich: 31
Mike Ridley: 26
Al Iafrate: 25
Pat Elynuik: 22
Michal Pivonka: 21
Sylvain Cote: 21
Dale Hunter: 20
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week:
- Returning to the 20-goal scorers, Brett Connolly is one short of his first 20-goal season in the NHL. If Nicklas Backstrom gets two more, he will reach the 20-goal mark for the sixth time, tying Dave Christian, Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, and Alexander Semin for fifth place on the all-time franchise list of most 20-goal seasons. If Evgeny Kuznetsov does it, it will be his third such season, lifting him into the top-20 in all time 20-goal seasons (three, tied with seven other players for 15th place).
- With 655 career goals, Alex Ovechkin needs one more to tie Brendan Shanahan for 13th place on the all-time NHL goal-scoring list.
- With one more power play goal, Ovechkin will break a tie with Phil Esposito for fifth place in NHL history (both have 246 power play goals).
- Evgeny Kuznetsov needs two goals to reach 100 for his career. He would become the 28th (or 29th, see next item) Capital to reach that mark with the club.
- T.J. Oshie needs two goals to reach 100 goals as a Capital. He needs one point to reach the 200-point mark as a Capital.
- Lars Eller needs four points to reach 100 points as a Capital. With five more minutes played, he will reach 10,000 minutes played in the NHL.
- With 72 career power play goals, Nicklas Backstrom needs one power play goal to break a tie with Dale Hunter for fourth place in team history in that category.
- John Carlson needs three points to reach the 400-point mark for his career. He would become the 17th player (and fifth defenseman) to record 400 points with the Caps.
- With his next game-winning goal, Kuznetsov would break a four-way tie for 17th place on the all-time franchise list. He shares that spot with Mike Green, Dmitri Khristich, and Marcus Johansson with 20 game-winners. It would tie Kuznetsov with Dave Christian for 16th place on that list (21).
- With his next shutout, Braden Holtby will break a tie with Olaf Kolzig (35) for most shutouts by a goaltender in Capitals history. He is 15th among active goaltenders in shutouts.
- If Alex Ovechkin takes one penalty this week, he will break a tie with Mike Gartner for seventh place on the all-time franchise list (315). Four penalties, and he would tie Peter Bondra (319) for sixth place. He needs three penalty minutes to tie Joe Reekie for 11th place on the club’s all-time list (688) and nine penalty minutes to tie Greg Adams for tenth place (694).
- A hat trick for Alex Ovechkin this week, and he will break a tie with Jari Kurri for tenth place on the all-time list (both have 23).
- With one even-strength goal this week, Ovechkin will break a tie with Mario Lemieux for 15th place all-time (405). Two even strength goals, and he would tie Jari Kurri for 14th place (407).
- With ten shots on goal, Ovechkin will reach the 300-shot mark for the 13th time in 14 seasons. That would break a tie with Bobby Hull for most seasons in NHL history with at least 300 shots on goal (both players have 12 such seasons). The only time he did not reach 300 shots was in the shortened 2012-2013 season (he had 220 in 48 games).