January 31 vs. New York Islanders at Barclay's Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 33-10-6
New York Islanders 21-17-9
With the 2017 NHL All-Star Game and break now in the rear view, Washington gets back to the grind of the NHL's 2016-17 regular season on Tuesday in Brooklyn when it takes on the New York Islanders for the fifth and final time this season. The two teams have split the four previous contests, splitting a pair of games in each city as well. Tuesday's finale of the season's series between the two Metropolitan Division rivals will serve as the rubber match for '16-17 as well.
The Caps went into the break on a high note, earning a 5-2 win over the Devils in New Jersey last Thursday in their final game before the break. Washington finished off a busy stretch of hockey in which it played 17 games in 31 nights on Thursday in New Jersey, coming out of that grind with a 13-2-2 record.
Caps goaltender Braden Holtby, captain Alex Ovechkin and head athletic trainer Greg Smith represented Washington at the 2017 NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. All three represented the Wayne Gretzky-coached Metropolitan Division team, which prevailed in the mini three-on-three tournament and will split a $1 million prize.
Washington comes out of the break sitting in the top spot in both the Metropolitan and Eastern Conference standings, owning a four-point lead over second-place Columbus, although the Blue Jackets do hold a game in hand on the Caps. After a 13-7-3 start to the season, Washington is 20-3-3 in its last 26 games.
Video: Trotz talks after returning from the All-Star break
The Capitals have scored 96 goals in those last 26 games (an average of 3.69 per game) and they've surrendered just 49 (an average of 1.88 per game) over the same span.
"I think we've just been good at not getting satisfied," says Caps center Lars Eller. "We never really came out the next game and thought it was going to be easy. Everybody is doing the right thing, everybody is hungry, we want more, all the lines are scoring and each line wants to go out and do the same thing. And Holts and [goaltender Phillip Grubauer] have been great."
Eller is right about the goaltending. Holtby went into the break on a serious roll, with a 14-2-3 record, five shutouts, a 1.74 GAA and a .938 save pct. in his previous 21 starts.
For the season, Holtby sports a 1.96 GAA and a .930 save pct. While his win total of 24 is six fewer than the 30 he had at the break of his Vezina Trophy season in 2015-16, his qualitative numbers are actually a bit better this time around; he had a 2.07 GAA and a .929 save pct. at the break a year ago.
Grubauer is 7-1-2 in his last 10 games, and he has already matched his single-season career best total of nine wins, established last season.
Early in the season, the Caps were getting by primarily on defense and goaltending. But over the last several weeks, they've been hitting on all cylinders. Washington has received production from all up and down its lineup, all while its defense and its goaltending has remained sturdy and stingy. It's made for a potent combination that has proven difficult to defeat.
Since suffering a 4-3 loss to the Islanders here in Brooklyn on Dec. 27 in their first game back in action after the NHL's holiday break, the Capitals have taken at least a point in 15 of 16 games (13-1-2). Two of the team's three losses during that span came in the second half of back-to-back games
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"In the first half or the first 20-something games, I thought we were just trying to re-establish our identity," says Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt. "I think the last 20 we've really found our way to get back to what we want to do and get back to the style we want to play. I think that's the biggest difference in the last 20 games. It's been getting our identity back, Holts is playing well and our defense is starting to be the pillar of our team. Our guys have been logging a lot of big minutes and [Matt Niskanen] and those guys are playing really well. I think that's a big part of our success lately."
Another key to the Caps' recent run of success has been the rhythm of the team's schedule. For whatever reason, the Capitals are at their best when they play every other day, with exactly one day's rest in between. They'll play 44 such games this season, and they're 24-2-2 through the first 28 of those contests.
"I think our team plays better when we are on a roll and we keep coming to the rink and working and playing," says Holtby. "And [Caps coach] Barry [Trotz] has been good with getting our rest throughout that. It's obviously a tough schedule and guys have used it the right way. We're a mature group in here. We know these things happen, and we don't blame anyone or blame the schedule if we don't play well. We expect ourselves to play well every night, and I think that's why we've had success."
Video: Williams talks to the media about the All-Star break
On Monday morning, the Caps recalled defenseman Christian Djoos and center Chandler Stephenson from AHL Hershey. The two will join the team for Monday's afternoon practice session at Kettler Capitals Iceplex and will accompany the team on its late afternoon journey to New York for Tuesday's game.
Since the Caps and Islanders last met just over a month ago in Brooklyn, New York has had a regime change. Jack Capuano was relieved of his duties as the Isles' head coach, and assistant coach Doug Weight was appointed as the team's interim bench boss.
New York won its last game under Capuano, a 4-0 victory over the Bruins in Boston on Jan. 16, and the Isles have earned at least a point in each of the five games (4-0-1) since Weight took over. Those five games are all part of a six-game homestand that concludes with Washington's visit on Tuesday.
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The Isles' recent surge has put them back in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. As the league prepares to get back to work after the All-Star break, the Islanders rank 11th in the Eastern Conference standings, and they're now five points out of the second and final wild card playoff position. When the Caps were in town late last month, the Islanders were a dozen points south of the last Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Once the Caps leave town and this homestand comes to an end, the Islanders will play 22 of their final 34 games on the road. New York has won only six of 19 (6-9-4) road games to date in 2016-17.