March 16 vs. Nashville Predators at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM, 1500 AM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Nashville Predators 34-24-11
Washington Capitals 45-17-7
The Capitals finish off a two-game homestand on Thursday when they host the Nashville Predators at Verizon Center. The game is the last of two between the Caps and Preds in 2016-17; Nashville claimed a 5-2 victory over Washington less than three weeks ago in Music City.
Washington opened its brief homestand on Tuesday with a 4-2 win over the Minnesota Wild, a victory that halted a four-game slide for the Caps. In addition to the losing streak, the Caps also ended a streak of four straight games in which they yielded four or more goals and six straight games in which they scored two or fewer.
A defenseman was involved in all four Washington goals in the win over Minnesota, and the Caps have gotten a goal from a defenseman in consecutive games for the first time in more than two months, since a Capitals blueliner scored in three straight games from Jan. 1-5.
"I like the fact that our [defensemen] were being a little more active," says Caps coach Barry Trotz, "and that helped the offense."
Despite scoring the game's first goal in two of the three games on their recent California trip, the Capitals came home without any points from that journey. They were never able to add to any of those early leads out west, and when they finally opened up a multi-goal lead over Minnesota on Tuesday, it marked the first time they led by more than a goal since a 4-1 win over the Rangers in New York on Feb. 28.
On Tuesday, the Caps and Wild appeared to be headed for a scoreless first before Washington got a big goal from Nate Schmidt with just 11.7 seconds left in the first to take a 1-0 lead.
"We had a lot of chances and a lot of better chances than that one, and for one of those to go in, we kind of needed that," says Schmidt. "That was the type of game that we wanted to play, and [the Wild] made a little push and I thought we did a really good job of handling it in the third period there. That's the type of win that's going to help us in this next five-game segment here."
Washington added two more tallies in the second, and Backstrom picked up assists on each of those first three Capitals goals. Being able to add to that first-period lead proved to be huge, as the Wild were able to get back into the game with a pair of early goals in the third.
"Yeah, it was huge," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "There were a couple of minutes in the third there where [the Wild] got some energy there from that first goal they got, and they got some power play [time] too. Other than that, I thought we shut them down there in the there and it was obviously a big goal from [Jay Beagle] there with about five minutes to go."
Caps goalie Braden Holtby stopped 32 of the 34 shots he faced to earn his 35th win of the season, avoiding what would have been the first four-game losing streak of his NHL career in the process. Holtby is third in the NHL in wins; he leads in GAA (2.03) and ranks fifth in save pct. (.926) among all goaltenders with 20 or more games played this season. His .936 even-strength save pct. is third best in the NHL.
While the Caps are certainly happy and relieved to be back in the win column, they also realize the need to start stringing wins together at more of a pre- than post-bye week rate. The Metropolitan Division standings say so.
"It's a bit of a wakeup call for us, and it's good," says Holtby. "I said before that it was going to show what kind of character we have in this group, and this is a good start for that. But it's one game, and we move on. We know in order to be successful we've got to be consistent and now our focus shifts to the next game."
Tuesday's triumph over the Wild also stopped a five-game losing streak against Western Conference opponents. Including Thursday's game against the Predators, six of the Capitals' remaining 13 games are against Western foes. The Caps are now 15-7-0 against Western clubs in 2016-17.
Of all the teams the Caps have played this season the Predators are - along with the San Jose Sharks - one of only two they haven't defeated. The Sharks swept the Caps in the two-game season's series, and Washington gets one more crack at the Preds on Thursday. There is still one team the Caps have yet to face this season; they have two games remaining against the Arizona Coyotes.
Since they defeated the Capitals in Nashville on Feb. 25, the Preds have forged a 4-2-2 record. The Predators carry a two-game winning streak into Thursday's game. After winning the last game of their own three-game California trip in San Jose on Saturday, the Preds stopped at home long enough to earn a 5-4 overtime win over the Winnipeg Jets on Monday. Nashville has earned at least a point in four straight games (2-0-2).
Nashville is virtually certain to lock down its third straight berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and its 10th in the last 13 seasons. The Preds don't have any upward mobility; they're not going to finish any higher than third in the Central, and they could fall into one of wild card positions. It is more than likely that Nashville will face either Chicago or Minnesota in the playoffs.
After facing the Caps, the Preds will continue on to Carolina where they have a Saturday night date with the Hurricanes. Each of the next four of Nashville's road games is against an Eastern Conference opponent; the Preds are 12-9-5 against Eastern clubs this season.