Jan. 27 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
Washington Capitals 33-11-5
Montreal Canadiens 22-21-7
Nine days after they authored a thrilling third-period comeback against the Islanders in New York, the Capitals are back in action against the Canadiens in Montreal. Monday night's game against the Habs is Washington's first after the conclusion of its midseason break.
The Caps went into their break on a high, and in complete contrast to the mode in which they entered their break in January of last year. Washington lugged a seven-game losing streak (0-5-2) - its longest skid in five years - into last year's break. This time around, the Caps rode a three-game winning streak - all against Metropolitan Division opponents - into the break, and they roared back from a 4-1 deficit at the start of the third period. to stun the Isles with five unanswered goals in a 6-4 victory.
Alex Ovechkin accounted for half of the Caps' goals in that game, catching and passing Mario Lemieux (690) on the league's all-time goals ledger and tying Steve Yzerman (692) for ninth place on that list. Ovechkin has rocketed up that list in recent days, but his pursuit of the nine players ahead of him will be on hold while Washington is in Montreal.
Rules are rules, and fair is the hand that cracks the whip. That hand belongs to the NHL, and the league has ruled that any player who opts out of going to the NHL All-Star Game is automatically suspended for one game. Therefore, Ovechkin is ruled out of Monday's match in Montreal; he won't play in front of the fans in Quebec on Washington's lone trip into town this season. For the second straight January, Ovechkin has opted to take his one-game medicine from the league rather than attend the circuit's All-Star festivities.
"Those are the rules that are in place by the National Hockey League," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "Obviously, we support them and will follow in line with the suspension. Those are the rules that we have to go by, and whether it's going to continue [with future All-Star Games] or not is something that's well above my pay grade."
Had Ovechkin and/or the Capitals chosen for him to miss last Saturday's game against the Isles in New York, we would have missed out on his third straight multi-goal game and his second hat trick in a span of three games. With eight goals in his last three games, Ovechkin is as hot as he has been at any point in his career, and as hot as any player in the league.
Ovechkin and his teammates reconvened for practice on Sunday afternoon in Montreal. On Monday, they'll take on the Habs as they look to hit the ground running after more than a week away from the rink.
"Every season is a little bit different," says Reirden of the break, "and where your team is at and how you're feeling physically going into it. Whether you win the game or lose the game before you head into the break sometimes has a little bit of an effect on it, and the message that you send as a coach.
"I think we did some good things in the first half of the season, up until the All-Star break. But we're definitely still working on getting better in a number of different areas, and we went to work on that [Sunday]. It's a clear plan, of knowing [Monday] is not going to be a perfect game by any means for both teams coming off of their break. It's up to us to have someone different in there [Monday] without Ovi, and a little different look to our power play. Now it's up to some guys to take advantage of a different opportunity."
We'll never know what Ovechkin might have done on Monday in Montreal, but it's a good opportunity for the Caps to get Travis Boyd into the lineup for the first time in nearly a month. Washington's group of bottom-six forwards has been playing splendidly of late, making it tough for Boyd to crack the lineup even for a night or two. Ovechkin's absence means that Boyd - who has played well in his limited action this season - will be in the Washington lineup on Monday, because he is currently the only spare player the Capitals are carrying on their roster.
Reirden also announced that Braden Holtby will have the crease for the Caps on Monday in Montreal.
Like the Caps, the Habs went into the break on a roll. The Canadiens won four of their last five games going into the break, taking a 5-4 shootout decision over Vegas on Jan. 18. That victory lifted Montreal's home ice record to a pedestrian 10-12-4 record on the season.
Montreal got out to a strong start this season, but the Habs have had a tough go since the Caps last saw them over two months ago. As they head into the post-break portion of their schedule, the Canadiens are looking to make up a 10-point standings deficit between themselves and the Carolina Hurricanes, the current occupant of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Montreal must also hop over four teams - including the Hurricanes - in its final 32 games to get into that coveted standings spot.
In the only previous meeting between the Caps and the Canadiens this season, Montreal prevailed 5-2 in a Nov. 15 game in Washington. That game marks one of the very few lackluster performances the Caps have put forth this season, and it lifted the Habs to 11-5-3 at that juncture of the campaign. But an eight-game losing streak (0-5-3) followed, and the Habs haven't been able to climb back into the playoff chase since. Before winning four of their last five games, the Habs endured another eight-game slide (0-7-1).
On Jan. 3 of this year, the Canadiens signed veteran free-agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk for the remainder of the campaign after Los Angeles waived the 36-year-old Russian forward. Kovalchuk signed for the league minimum - the Kings are still paying him on the three-year contract he signed prior to 2018-19 - and he has produced nicely for them thus far, totaling four goals and eight points in eight games.