April 5 vs. New York Rangers at Verizon Center
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM, 1500 AM and Capitals Radio 24/7
New York Rangers 47-26-6
Washington Capitals 53-18-8
Fresh (well, in a manner of speaking, anyway) from a season-long five-game road trip, the Capitals return home just long enough to host the New York Rangers in Washington's final game against a Metropolitan Division opponent this season. For the Caps, Wednesday's game is the team's second in as many nights and their sixth in the last nine nights.
The Caps finished off their five-game, four-time zone trek across North America on Tuesday night in Toronto where they earned a convincing 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs.
The lone misstep of the Caps' trip came last Friday in Arizona when they suffered a 6-3 loss to the Coyotes in the middle match of the journey. But the Caps finished with a flourish against a pair of teams they could end up facing at some point during the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs. Washington downed the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Sunday before taking down the Leafs on Tuesday. With the win in Toronto, the Caps have won nine of their last 11 games (9-1-1).
Washington scored at least once in each period and got a strong 27-save outing from Philipp Grubauer in goal in Tuesday's triumph in Toronto. The Caps turned in their most complete 60-minute effort of the trip and it proved to be too much for the weary Maple Leafs - who played on the road the previous night - to overcome.
"I thought [the Leafs] had a little push there early in the second," says Caps coach Barry Trotz, "We had a big penalty kill and our power play scored a goal, and we felt pretty comfortable. We just had to manage it, and we made some better decisions over the course of the game. We really didn't give them [anything to] feed into what they can do so well. They can turn around a game and get free offense if you don't manage pucks really well; they turn it into scoring chances. And I thought we did a pretty good job most of the night.
"The only disappointment I had was we took a late penalty and Grubi didn't get a shutout."
Now, the Caps are down to just three games remaining in the 2016-17 regular season. They need just one point with which to clinch the Metropolitan Division title and to also lay claim to the NHL's best regular season record for the second time in as many seasons. If Washington can manage to win each of those last three games - it plays in Boston on Saturday afternoon and hosts Florida in the season finale on Sunday - the Caps will finish the season at 56-18-8, a record identical to the one they forged over the 2015-16 regular season.
Caps defenseman John Carlson was a late scratch for Tuesday's game in Toronto. Carlson participated in the pregame warm-up, but came down with a lower body ailment and was unable to go for the start of the contest.
That opened the door for Nate Schmidt to return to the Washington lineup after an absence of three weeks, and he Schmidt was more than up to the task. Stepping into Carlson's spot on the right side of a pairing with Karl Alzner, Schmidt logged 14:11 in ice time, recorded a couple of hits, registered a plus-3 and scored on his only shot of the game.
Schmidt's goal came in the third period, making the score 3-0 at that juncture. It was Schmidt's second goal in as many games and it gives him a single-season career high total of three for the campaign.
"About three-quarters of the way through warm-ups," says Schmidt, asked when he found out he would be in the lineup on Tuesday. "Carly said he wasn't able to go, so all of a sudden and the end there, you're ready to rock. He said, 'By the way, you've got to be ready to go.'
"It was fun to be back out there. It was a good atmosphere and a fun game to be a part of."
For a guy who was skated hard at the morning skate, which is customary practice for those not expected to play that night, Schmidt had a lot of game in his legs on Tuesday.
"The first two shifts, the legs weren't so good after the morning skate," admits Schmidt. "But after that, it was kind of a seamless transition. Karl and I were talking a lot to each other, and that's just a big part of our [defense] as a whole. I think we do a really good job of making sure that any situation we're put into, our guys are communicating and we're letting each other know and we're making sure everybody's feeling comfortable with their game."
Wednesday's game is the fourth and final meeting between the Capitals and the Rangers this season, and the first at Verizon Center since Oct 22 when the Rangers handed the Capitals a 4-2 setback for Washington's first regulation loss of the season. The two teams also split a pair of February games at Madison Square Garden.
While the Capitals, Penguins and Blue Jackets have battled it out for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division for most of the season, the Rangers have been hovering just behind, and New York has been virtually locked into the fourth spot in the Metro for many weeks now. New York is headed to the playoffs for the seventh straight spring, and it has recorded its third straight season of 100 or more points, one of four teams in the division to reach the century mark this season.
The Rangers will open the playoffs as the first of two wild card teams from the Eastern Conference, and they will cross over to take on the Atlantic Division champion Montreal Canadiens in the first round in a battle of Original Six rivals. This will be the 16th time - and first time since 2014 - that the Rangers and Canadiens have met in the Stanley Cup playoffs. New York has prevailed in eight of those 15 series over the years.
New York has been scuffling a bit down the stretch. The Rangers haven't won consecutive games in a month (since March 6-7), and they'll be seeking to do so on Wednesday against Washington. Since reeling off six straight wins at the start of February, the Rangers have won 10 of 23 games (10-8-5).