Feb. 27 vs. Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
Washington Capitals 39-18-6
Winnipeg Jets 32-27-6
Two nights after they met for the first time in nearly a year, the Caps and the Winnipeg Jets get together for another tangle. Thursday night's tilt will be in Manitoba's capital city, and it will conclude the season's series between the two former Southeast Division rivals.
Thursday's game starts a two-game journey to the middle of the continent for the Caps. After facing the Jets, the Caps will move on to St. Paul where they'll finish the trip on Sunday against the Wild. This trip marks the last two games the Caps will play outside the Eastern Time Zone this season.
Washington got the win in D.C. on Tuesday in the front end of the home-and-home set, taking a 4-3 shootout decision after letting a 3-0 second-period lead slip away. Both teams were happy to earn points, as both are embroiled in spirited battles for playoff positioning in their respective divisions and conferences.
The Caps' three-goal lead on Tuesday was their first of February, and they held it for almost 55 minutes. Jets center Mark Scheifele scored to tie the game with 3:14 remaining, and the Caps needed Alex Ovechkin's fifth-round shootout goal and a Braden Holtby save on Nikolaj Ehlers to secure the second point, and to string together consecutive wins for the first time in nearly a month.
"We had a tough stretch there," says Jakub Vrana, who scored his 25th goal to establish a single-season personal best. "We couldn't get it done for a while there, but we're focusing on other things right now on the ice, just to make sure all our little things on the ice are in the right place, and play more responsible for the team. We're happy we could get it done today, and we're going to move on to Winnipeg."
With a 4-6-1 record in February and with only Thursday's game remaining against the Jets this month, the Caps are resigned to their first sub-.500 month of hockey - excluding April - in over a year, since they turned in a 3-6-3 mark in January of 2019. But they have shown some gradual improvement over the last handful off games as newcomers Brenden Dillon (four games) and Ilya Kovalchuk (one game) are being blended into the team's mix. Now they'll hit the road for a couple of games - with a day off and a practice day in between - to further that integration process.
"It's a good time for this," says Caps coach Todd Reirden of the upcoming trip. "Our team got together with Alex [Tuesday] night, postgame. He did a great thing as a leader to bring everyone together [Tuesday] night, so that was a solid move where guys were able to see each other in different environments with their wives. That was good - and the staff was included - so that was a nice event, and now we'll get out on the road."
Video: Reirden | February 26
The Capitals honored Ovechkin for his 700th goal with a rousing ceremony before Tuesday's game, and he and his wife Nastya hosted his teammates and the Caps traveling crew and hockey staff at a nearby eatery after the contest.
With the trade deadline behind them and the team firmly in place for the stretch drive, the Caps are now focused on putting together another of their patented finishing drives.
Since the start of the 2007-08 season - a stretch in which Washington has made the playoffs 11 times in 12 seasons - the Caps have forged an overall points pct. of .642, tops in the league over that lengthy span. But in the same stretch, the Caps have been even better (.673) over the final quarter of those seasons.
"The closer you get to the playoffs, the more exciting it is to play," says Holtby. "We have a ton of skill always in here. When it gets close to the playoffs, we start working on the harder things to do a little more. I think that's probably why. We had some huge shot blocks [Tuesday night], plays that came directly from hard work. So it's a good recipe for success."
Washington blocked 24 Winnipeg shots in Tuesday's game, well above their rate of 13.63 blocked shots per 60 minutes, which ranks 15th in the league this season.
With a shootout loss to the Caps in the finale of a four-game road trip, Winnipeg finished its journey with 1-2-1 mark. Heading into Wednesday night's slate of NHL activity, the Jets are tied with Nashville and Arizona at 70 points for the second and final wild card berth in the Western Conference playoffs. The Preds occupy the playoff spot because they have played only 62 games while Winnipeg has played 65 and Arizona 66.
Starting with Thursday's game against the Capitals, the Jets will be at home for four of their next five.
The Jets yielded the game's first goal for the ninth consecutive game on Tuesday, but they were more than pleased to take a point - and to put themselves in a position to earn a second one - in a game in which they trailed 3-0 late in the second period.
"That's a high caliber team, that's a Stanley Cup champion team over there," says Jets defenseman Anthony Bitetto of the Caps. "So for us to fight back and have the confidence to fight back and not give up, and to stay in the fight like we talk about all year, I think that's huge. In a couple days when we play them again, it's got to be the same mentality, but we've got to come out with a better start."