The Colorado Avalanche will need to find its scoring touch tonight as the Washington Capitals make their lone appearance at Pepsi Center this season. The Capitals, already the winner of the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top-point getter during the year, enter the night second in the league in scoring, averaging 3.07 goals per game.
Washington is also one of the best defensive clubs this season, leading the league with 2.3 goals against per contest and ranking tied for sixth with just 28.7 shots allowed per outing.
The Caps have been led offensively by their captain Alex Ovechkin, who has 44 goals (65 points) and could very reasonably reach the 50-tally mark for the third consecutive season. Washington has also received scoring support from linemate Nicklas Backstrom (67 points) and fellow Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov (74 points).
However, the Capitals probably wouldn't have locked up the top spot in the league with two weeks left in the season without the play of goaltender Braden Holtby.
The Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, native has undoubtedly been one of the best, if not the best, netminders in the league. He's top five in the NHL in goals-against average (2.17) and save percentage (.924) and is first overall with 46 wins. Holtby is just two victories away from tying Martin Brodeur for the single-season wins record (48).
Facing good scoring and top goaltending makes it even more important for Colorado to get going offensively early and for the duration of the 60-minute contest.
"We're an offensive team. I think we have a lot of guys in here that can score," said Avs forward Matt Duchene. "We want to be aggressive and push the pace. We want to come out early. The boys did a great job in Nashville coming out hard (Colorado won 4-3 on Monday). This is the type of start we need tonight."
The Avalanche is in the middle of the pack in scoring this season and getting Duchene back in the lineup after he missed the last six games with a knee injury certainly doesn’t hurt.
Duchene leads the team with 29 goals and 56 points in 71 games.
"It was really hard to watch and not be out there helping the guys," Duchene said. "You feel helpless. You feel useless as an athlete. I think it's great to be back and can't wait to help the team win."
The Colorado center hopes to pick up where he was before getting hurt during the third period of the March 16 contest at the Vancouver Canucks. He had recorded three goals and five assists in his last seven outings and is on a four-game point streak (two goals and four assists).
"I was really happy where things were at when I left, when I got hurt," Duchene said. "It's kind of unfortunate, but I think I wasn't off too long to the point where I don't think I can find it quick again.
"Everybody has got to be pulling their weight right now, and it doesn't matter whether I was hurt or not. I’m coming back. I want to make a difference. I want to help this team win and play my role the best I can."
Duchene will center the Avs' top line with wings Mikhail Grigorenko and Mikkel Boedker. Duchene played with Grigorenko before getting hurt, but this will be his first time on a pairing with Boedker—who shares a similar speed attribute as Duchene.
"Those two have been really good down the stretch here for us," Duchene said of Boedker and Grigorenko. "I'm excited to jump in, and hopefully I don't hold them back too much. Obviously, they are playing really well, and I think we can be a great line."
Duchene will lead an Avalanche attack that will look to defeat a goalie that has yet to lose consecutive games this season. Holtby and the Capitals are coming off a shootout loss on Wednesday night at the Philadelphia Flyers.
For the Avs, beating Holtby is simple: get players in front to screen him and shoot from everywhere in hopes of cleaning up on a rebound or getting a seeing-eye shot through.
"Get traffic and obviously put some pucks to the net," said Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog. "Eventually there are going to be some bounces that go our way. It doesn't have to be pretty. We're going to study him and see how he's been doing, and what kind of goals he's let in."
Still, at the end of the day, the more the Avs score, the more likely they are to succeed.
In Colorado's last 14 wins, it has scored at least three times. However in the club's last 10 losses, it has averaged just 1.6 goals.
MACKINNON INJURY UPDATE
The good news is that Matt Duchene will return to the lineup this evening from a knee injury. The bad news is that Nathan MacKinnon is still out with his knee ailment, and the outlook of him playing in any of the final four games of the regular season isn't good.
Head coach Patrick Roy said this morning that MacKinnon has yet to skate since suffering his injury on March 18 at Calgary.
"I haven't asked this morning if the plan is for him to skate soon, but the last I heard the answer is no," said Roy, referring to the team's training staff having to give the clear before the forward puts on blades and heads out on the ice.
Duchene was injured two days prior to MacKinnon on March 16 in Vancouver, but he skated three times by himself and was a full participant in the club's practice on Thursday before being cleared to play.
MacKinnon is second on the Avalanche in goals (21) and points (52). He missed the end of last season as well with a broken foot.
Mikhail Grigorenko—Matt Duchene—Mikkel Boedker
Gabriel Landeskog—Carl Soderberg—Blake Comeau
Shawn Matthias—John Mitchell—Jarome Iginla
Cody McLeod—Andrew Agozzino—Andreas Martinsen
Chris Bigras—Erik Johnson
Nikita Zadorov—Francois Beauchemin
Nick Holden—Tyson Barrie