April 2 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena
Time: 6:00 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 51-18-8
Columbus Blue Jackets 49-20-8
With only a week remaining in the 2016-17 NHL regular season, the Capitals and the Columbus Blue Jackets go head-to-head for the last of five times this season on Sunday in Ohio's capital city. With the top spot in the Metropolitan Division at stake and five games remaining in the season for both teams, Sunday's tilt is a classic four-point game.
Washington comes into town with a four-point lead over the Blue Jackets in the Metro standings, and both teams are coming into the contest on the heels of Friday night losses on the road. While the Caps' six-game winning streak came to an end with a 6-3 defeat to the Coyotes in Arizona, the Blue Jackets dropped a 3-1 decision to the Blackhawks in Chicago.
Had the Capitals been able to defeat the Coyotes, they would have come into Columbus with a chance to clinch the Metro Division title with a regulation win over the Jackets on Sunday. Instead, the Jackets can halve Washington's four-point lead down to two if they're able to take Sunday's game in regulation.
"That's got huge implications on the standings," says Caps left wing Daniel Winnik of Sunday's game. "What's more disappointing about this [loss to Arizona] is you can do some scoreboard watching and see that [the Jackets lose to Chicago, so it really would have put us in a better position going into Sunday's game. But even if we did win [on Friday] it's a big game in the season, probably the most important game of the year."
Caps coach Barry Trotz was upset his team missed a chance to pick up a point or two against an Arizona team that's just playing out the remaining games of the regular season. The Coyotes haven't been within shouting distance of a playoff spot for most of the season.
"We've been working all year to try to get some separation," says Trotz, "and we had an opportunity and we let it slip away."
For just the second time in 76 games this season, the Capitals surrendered three goals in the first period of Friday's game against the Coyotes. The Caps scored the game's next two goals to claw back to within one of the Desert Dogs, but two Arizona power-play goals in the back half of the second period put Washington right back into a three-goal hole.
The league's best team at five-on-five for most of this season, the Caps have struggled mightily at evens during the first three games of their current five-game road trip. Washington has been outscored by a combined 10-5 at five-on-five in the first three games of this trip, and it has surrendered a total of 13 goals against in the three games.
"I think we just need to be a little bit more structured," says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. "We're a little bit too free flowing right now. Being able to stop some cycles a little faster would be nice in the [defensive] zone, and then tonight we put a lot of pucks at the net but that's something that needs to be a focus every game."
On Wednesday in Colorado, the Caps surrendered three five-on-five goals to the Avalanche. The Avs have scored 104 five-on-five goals in 77 games this season, last in the league. The Coyotes scored four times at five-on-five in Friday's game, and they rank 22nd in the NHL with 127 five-on-five goals in 78 games.
"Maybe we're a little bit too fancy in certain areas," says Caps blueliner John Carlson. "I think tonight we turned the puck over a little too much, trying to make really good plays instead of sometimes just keeping it smart and letting the good plays happen."
The Capitals have dropped to third in the league with 169 five-on-five goals, four back of co-leaders Pittsburgh and Minnesota. Even with their recent spate of goals against at even strength, the Capitals still have surrendered the fewest five-on-five goals this season, permitting 110 in 77 games.
"I think we've gotten away from things we were having success with," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "To be honest, the last two periods here [in Arizona], we got back to that. I thought we were playing really well at five-on-five, back to the way we were having success. So maybe it was just a wake-up call, and that's maybe a good thing at this time. We have a big game against Columbus."
That they do.
Washington and Columbus have split their previous four meetings this season, with one of the Jackets' wins coming in overtime and one of the Caps' triumphs coming in a shootout. That Washington shootout win came by a 2-1 count and took place in the most recent meeting between the two teams on March 23 in the District.
The Blue Jackets have clinched a Stanley Cup playoff berth for the third time in franchise history, but they still have designs on their first ever division championship and are still in the running for the Presidents' Trophy as well. The Blue Jackets are in the midst of a stellar season, and they would go from worst to first if they're able to topple the Capitals from the top spot in the Metro Division between now and next Sunday when the regular season comes to a close.
The Jackets are the only team in the league that hasn't dropped as many as three straight games in regulation at any point this season. They come into Sunday's game having dropped two in a row, but the first of those was a 2-1 overtime loss to the Hurricanes in Carolina on Thursday. Despite scoring a grand total of just seven goals in their last five games, the Jackets have managed to pull six out of 10 points during that span, going 2-1-2.
After facing the Caps on Sunday, the Blue Jackets will play three of their final four games of the season on the road in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Toronto, respectively. In between the first two of those road tilts, Columbus will host Winnipeg in the Jackets final home game of the 2016-17 regular season.