January 5 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7
Columbus Blue Jackets 27-5-4
Washington Capitals 23-9-5
Washington concludes its three-game homestand against the hottest team the league has seen in nearly a quarter of a century. The Columbus Blue Jackets come to town on Thursday, for the second and final time this season. The Jackets will be seeking their 17th straight win, and if they get it, they'll match an NHL standard that has stood for nearly 24 years.
The Caps come into Thursday's game with a modest three-game winning streak of their own. Washington played the Jackets twice earlier this season, facing them twice in a span of six days in November, just before Columbus set off on its current winning spree. The Blue Jackets prevailed in both of those games, winning a 2-1 overtime game in Columbus on Nov. 15 and a 3-2 decision on Nov. 20 in the District.
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"I think there are always certain games that have a little more impact emotionally or anything like that," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Some of them are through competition, through rivalry, and some are circumstance. Our guys, we're focused on our game. Obviously, Columbus is doing something pretty special. We'll just focus on Columbus and that'll be it."
The Jackets' streak started back on Nov. 29. At the time, the Caps had 28 points and were two points ahead of Columbus. While the Blue Jackets have been on their epic run, the Caps have more than held their own. Washington is 10-3-3 in its last 16 games, a stretch equivalent to roughly one-fifth of the season. That pace would produce 118 points if maintained over a full 82-game season.
While Washington would love to be the team that halts the Columbus run, the Caps are more interested in closing the gap in the Metropolitan Division standings. A regulation win would narrow the Jackets' lead over the Caps to five points, with Columbus still holding a game in hand.
"It's very much about shrinking the lead," says Caps center Lars Eller. "And also a little bit in the past two games against them, I feel like we let something get away that we shouldn't have. We let it slip through our hands, so that should be some extra motivation for sure. It's a big divisional game."
The Caps come into that big divisional game on the heels of a thrilling 6-5 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night. Down 4-2 heading into the third, the Capitals rallied to force overtime and won it on Alex Ovechkin's 19th career overtime game-winner, a goal that ties him with Florida's Jaromir Jagr for the NHL's all-time lead in that category.
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"It was difficult at times," Trotz says of the win over the Leafs. "We came out in the first part of the game and we set the tone. We established a forecheck, we were grinding them down and we were getting a few looks. They really didn't have anything. It was one of those games where every time they did get a chance, it seemed to end up in the back of our net. I didn't have them for very many [scoring] chances other than on their power play. Their power play was pretty good.
"It was tough mentally because every time you think you're playing okay, and you have the puck a lot. Then all of a sudden they get a chance and it's in your net. That was difficult. So a little bit of resiliency for us and we'll take the good comeback. When it counted, everybody stepped up."
Tuesday's game marks the second one in the last three that the Caps got six goals from six different skaters. As they prepare to take on the Jackets for the first time in a month and a half, the Caps can be confident that they're playing some of their best hockey as well.
"I think we're better," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. "We're playing better recently. I don't think we've peaked yet; I think there is room for us to grow. I don't think we've reached our potential yet, but our game is in a better spot than it was earlier in the year, for sure."
"I think our guys are up to the challenge," says Trotz. "This is a team that's leading the league. They're a team that I think both games were very competitive that we played. We lost in overtime in Columbus, and they beat us with a power-play goal late [in Washington]. I think guys like the competition. It's something that good pros look at and say, "They're a good team and so are we. Let's see what happens."
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Since losing their first two games of the 2016-17 season - both on home ice - the Jackets have collected at least a point in 34 straight games (27-3-4), a remarkable feat in the modern NHL. In addition to their 16-game winning streak, the Jackets are carrying an 18-game point streak (17-0-1). They're also 21-1-2 in their last 24 games and 25-2-3 in their last 30.
During the life of its remarkable winning streak, Columbus has averaged just under four goals per game (3.88) while permitting fewer than two tallies per tilt (1.69). The Jackets have scored the game's first goal in 11 of the 16 games, and they've had 10 different players supply the game-winning goal during the streak, led by three from noted Caps killer Cam Atkinson.
Columbus has won a franchise record eight straight road games, and it has lost only two road games in regulation this season (12-2-3).
"The last couple of years I thought they were going to be really good, but they've had some injury problems," says Trotz of the Jackets. "That's really probably held them back. They've drafted really well and you knew that they had a good team, and then they faltered and got some other high draft choices. They turned those other high draft choices into pretty good players. They're a good hockey team."