The 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game was quite the spectacle in Columbus this past weekend, but now it’s back to business for the Blue Jackets. One of the stars of All-Star Weekend was Alex Ovechkin, and he’ll hang around in Columbus a little bit longer as his Washington Capitals join him to face the Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday night.
The Capitals hold the top wild card spot after the season’s first half, tied in the standings with the Boston Bruins but with two games in hand. The break came at a good time for the Capitals, who started January with a 6-0-1 record but dropped their final three contests before the break, all one-goal games. They gave up a combined 14 goals in the three games against Nashville, Dallas, and Edmonton (one goal was an awarded tally for the shootout win).
The Capitals push into playoff position has been fueled as usual by the work of Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who himself was certainly worthy of All-Star consideration. Ovechkin’s 37 goals rank third in the NHL, one back of Dallas’ Tyler Seguin and the Rangers’ Rick Nash. Backstrom leads the team with 47 points in 46 games.
Successful Barry Trotz-coached teams have always relied on the strong play of the defense, and the Capitals have gotten pretty stable play from the back end. John Carlson ranks third on the team in scoring and is the focal point of the blue line. The Capitals invested a lot of money in the off-season in shoring up the rest of that unit, and Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik have been solid additions. Both are plus-rated players, and Niskanen has been a pretty strong possession player. Mike Green isn’t putting up the astronomical numbers he once did from the blue line, but is having a solid season nonetheless and is fourth on the team in scoring with 27 points.
The Capitals defeated the Blue Jackets on Dec. 18 in one of the season’s more entertaining games. Eric Fehr scored the game winner just 42 seconds into overtime on a brilliant feed from Green to give Washington a 5-4 win in a back-and-forth contest.
Joel Ward and former Jacket Jason Chimera gave Washingotn a 2-0 lead after the first period, but Columbus responded with power play tallies in the second to tie the game heading into the final period. Foligno scored his second of the game in the first minute of the third, but was answered by Karl Alzner. Michael Chaput scored his first NHL goal late in the third period, only to be answered by Troy Brouwer with three minutes left in regulation. The Jackets are 1-1-1 against Washington this season.
With the Jackets announcing that Sergei Bobrovsky will miss the next four-to-six weeks with a groin injury, Curtis McElhinney will bear a significant workload for the second time this season. He didn’t have much success the first time around, going 1-6-1 from Oct. 28-Nov. 14 during the team’s first lengthy losing streak of the season, though players in the dressing room would be the first to say that they didn’t give McElhinney much help over that stretch. Now McElhinney’s game is much more on the upswing, winning his last three starts and stopping 16 of 17 shots in Winnipeg last week in relief of Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets go into tonight’s game 14 points out of a playoff spot and McElhinney needs to be a big part of any potential charge.
Sunday’s game was the highest scoring contest in All-Star history, and don’t think for a second that Alex Ovechkin didn’t play his fair share in that. Of the 29 goals, none were Ovechkin’s, but he did contribute three assists. Ovechkin has been finding the net in league play, with five goals and six points in his last three games, and three power play goals in the last five games. Ovechkin also enters the game with a grudge to settle against his All-Star captain Nick Foligno. Foligno took Ovechkin with his final pick of the All-Star fantasy draft, denying Ovechkin the consolation prize of a new car. “Just pick him, what’s he going to do?” said Foligno at the time. We may very well find out on Tueday night.
It was a tremendous weekend for the NHL, but for the Blue Jackets in particular. Foligno was outstanding under the league microscope all weekend, and Ryan Johansen received pretty much every honor the league had to offer. But now it’s back to the grueling regular season, back to reality, and that’s the case as well for players who are returning from vacations and an extended period away from the rink. Which team can shake the rust and get back to business first? It’s common understanding that a team can come out slow the day following a hard fought contest or extended time away from the ice. With the Capitals looking to solidify their playoff position and the Jackets looking to hop back into the race, neither of these teams can afford to show up late for this one.