February 19 vs. New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden
Time: 12:30 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 39-11-7
New York Rangers 37-19-1
Less than 24 hours after getting back into action after the conclusion of their bye week, the Capitals will finish off a set of back-to-back games with a nationally televised Sunday matinee match against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Washington spent Saturday afternoon at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, facing the Red Wings for the final time this season and playing their last game ever at The Joe, which opened for hockey business on Dec. 27, 1979. The Caps showed some signs of a week's worth of inactivity early in Saturday's game, falling into a 2-0 hole early in the second period against the Red Wings.
But the Caps rallied with a pair of late goals - the first in the penultimate minute of the second period and the other with less than five minutes remaining in the third - to force overtime. Unfortunately for the Caps, they also forced a shootout and the Wings picked up the extra point in the skills session, a victory that goes into the books as a 3-2 triumph. Detroit is now 7-0 in the shootout this season while Washington is 1-5.
"I think it was just getting the legs back and the little plays; getting the hands moving," says Caps forward Zach Sanford, who scored his second goal in as many games on Saturday, doing so in his first and last game at The Joe. "I think in the first period we didn't have that. Throughout the game, it got better and better and we were able to come back and tie it up there, which is good."
Five NHL teams returned to action from their bye week on Saturday, and 11 more will do so in the days ahead. The league as a whole is now 3-12-4 in its first game back after the bye.
Video: Caps players talk after a 3-2 SO loss vs. Detroit
"Just finding the pace in our game, and being in synch again, everybody," says Caps center Lars Eller, when queried as to the most difficult part of returning from a lengthy mid-season break. "I think we slowed the game down a bit. We are able to play a lot faster, but as the game went on we took it up a notch. But there is still a level that we can reach that we didn't see [Saturday].
"On the other hand, we battled back and got a chance to get two points so it wasn't all bad. But obviously, we've got to look better."
Detroit hasn't had its bye week yet, but the Wings seemed to have a good idea of what might make life more difficult for the Capitals as they returned from nearly a week of inactivity. The Wings clogged things up nicely for the Caps on Saturday, standing up across the blueline to make zone entries difficult and to make the establishment of a consistent forecheck virtually impossible.
"They were standing four guys on their own blueline, which made it hard to skate it in," says Eller of the Wings. "But the mind after four or five or six days off is not used to playing at the same pace as we were a week ago. I think [Saturday] was one step, and hopefully we can take another step [Sunday]."
Trying to earn his 30th win of the season, Caps goalie Braden Holtby kept his team close in Saturday's game, papering over the odd mistake in front of him with timely stops.
Video: WSH Recap: Caps' rally falls short in shootout loss
"The start of the first there was one play I overplayed and it could have easily wound up in the back of our net," admits Holtby. "Same as with [the Red Wings'] second goal. It's just one of those where hopefully my vision will come back a little quicker to see that third guy coming.
"It seems like a long time, but it really isn't. You just have to tell yourself to trust your instincts when you play out there and to battle through it."
Philipp Grubauer is expected to get the net for the Capitals on Sunday in New York.
The Caps now go from playing in the second oldest barn in the league on Saturday to playing in the oldest on Sunday when they face the Rangers.
The Rangers are currently running fourth in the Metropolitan Division standings with 75 points. New York had its six-game winning streak halted on Thursday at the hands of the cross-town Islanders in a 4-2 setback.
The middle four victories of New York's just-ended six-game winning streak were achieved against Western Conference foes on Madison Square Garden ice. The Rangers lost three straight and five out of eight coming out of their bye week just after the turn of the calendar, but the Blueshirts have righted the ship since and they're now 9-6-0 since their break.
Way back on Oct. 22 at Verizon Center, the Caps and Rangers hooked up in the first of the four meetings this season between the two Metropolitan Division rivals. The Capitals roared out to a 2-0 first-period lead in that contest, only to see the Rangers strike back for three goals in the middle period en route to a 4-2 victory.
The Caps and Rangers haven't seen one another since, but they'll go head-to-head three times in the final 25 games of the season, starting with Sunday's matinee affair.