Dec. 27 vs. Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, FAN 106.7
Carolina Hurricanes 15-15-5
Washington Capitals 22-10-3
Their four-day holiday break now in the rear view, the Capitals get back to work on Thursday night when they host the first of the Carolina Hurricanes' two visits to the District this season. It's the second meeting between the two Metropolitan Division rivals this month; the Caps engineered a 6-5 shootout victory over the Canes in Carolina on Dec. 14, a game in which Washington trailed 4-1 in the second period.
The Caps went into the holiday break on quite a roll, winning 14 of 17 and sweeping a set of back-to-back games just ahead of the break. Washington has swept each of its last three sets of back-to-backs, doing so for the first time in more than 27 years. The 1991-92 edition of the Capitals took three straight sets of back-to-backs in the month of November that season.
After defeating Buffalo 2-1 on home ice last Friday, the Caps flew up to Ottawa to take on the Sens on Saturday night. Washington goaltender Pheonix Copley stopped all 35 shots he faced to record the first shutout of his NHL career to give the Caps a third straight set of back-to-back sweeps.
Four different Caps - including two defensemen - found the back of the net in Saturday's win over the Sens, all doing so before the end of the second period. Washington is now 6-0-0 in the front end and 3-2-1 on the backside of its back-to-back games this season, with six more sets remaining.
"That's good team stuff when you get guys down the lineup contributing - old, slow defensemen contributing - I think that's good for team building," said Caps blueliner Matt Niskanen, who netted his fifth goal of the season in Ottawa. "Fun win on the road tonight. Cops was really good. They had a couple of dangerous looks; at least half a dozen on the night and maybe more. He was really solid. So good road win, good team win."
Copley became the third Caps goaltender to earn a regular season shutout over the Sens in Ottawa, joining Brent Johnson (April 1, 2006) and Braden Holtby (Jan. 7, 2017) in that distinction. Copley has earned six of his eight wins on the road this season, helping Washington to a road record (11-5-1) that virtually mirrors the team's home record (11-5-2) to this point of the season.
After winning only eight of their first 18 games this season, the Capitals have now won 14 of their last 17. Over the last month and a half, the Caps have rolled up a 55-30 goal differential at five-on-five, the best in the league over that span. Since Nov. 12, the Caps' total of 30 goals against at five-on-five is tied with Anaheim for fewest in the league.
Washington ranks third in the league with an average of 3.6 goals per game. The Caps have not had to rely on their power play as much as they did earlier in the season, either. In winning seven of their last nine games, the Caps have scored a power-play goal in just two of those nine contests.
At five-on-five, the Caps have been able to diversify their attack. Washington creates many chances off the rush, and it has the skill needed to finish a fair number of those chances, but the Caps have recently been scoring more goals off the forecheck and on extended offensive-zone sequences.
"I think it just gives us another dimension," said Caps winger Devante Smith-Pelly recently. "Obviously we know that on 3-on-2s and 2-on-1s and stuff like that we are going to be able to make plays. But there are going to be teams that play super, super tight and those aren't going to happen. So when things aren't going our way, we realize that if we can put the puck behind the other team's [defense], chances are we're going to get it back or we are going to create something. It just gives us another dimension, being able to score off the rush and being to score off grinding on the forecheck."
Carolina has improved in keeping the puck out of its net; the Canes have allowed 2.89 goals per game this season, ranking 14th in the league in that department, just ahead of the 15th-place Capitals (2.91). But the Canes still don't have much of an attack. Carolina scores just 2.54 goals per game, ranking 28th in the circuit.
Scott Darling was in goal for Carolina for the previous meeting between the Caps and Canes this month, but with veteran Curtis McElhinney back to peak health, Darling has been returned to AHL Charlotte.
In their last game before the holiday break, the Hurricanes rallied from a two-goal deficit to defeat Boston 5-3 on "Whalers Night" in Raleigh. The Canes sported Hartford Whalers uniforms for that game, honoring their World Hockey Association birthplace and their Adams Division rivalry with the B's after they merged into the NHL in 1979-80.
The Hurricanes have followed each of their last three victories with a string of multiple losses, a trend they'll obviously be seeking to reverse on Thursday. Carolina has won only four of its last 13 games (4-7-2).