March 15 vs. New York Islanders at Barclays Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Washington
Radio: 106.7 FM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 39-23-7
New York Islanders 30-29-10
The Caps take to the road to start off a set of home-and-home contests with the New York Islanders on Thursday. Washington and New York will renew acquaintances again on Friday night in the District in the back half of the set, and the season's finale between the two Metropolitan Division rivals.
Basking in the afterglow of Alex Ovechkin's two-goal game against Winnipeg on Monday, the second of which was the 600th goal of his NHL career, the Caps are also sitting on two straight wins and heading into a heavy stretch of Metropolitan Division games. Seven of their final 13 games will be played against fellow Metro Division denizens, including each of the next three.
Video: Caps 365 | March 14
The Caps salvaged the final game of their three-game California road trip on Saturday afternoon when they shutout the Sharks in San Jose. Returning home for just one game and still dealing with jet lag cobwebs from their trip home from the west coast, the Caps were able to stave off a very good Winnipeg team on Monday night at Capital One Arena, taking a 3-2 overtime win on the strength of Ovechkin's two goals and Evgeny Kuznetsov's game-winner on a breakaway in the final minute of the extra session.
"Those are two tough hockey teams that you play," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson of the consecutive victories over San Jose and Winnipeg. "They play the right way and they play a different style than maybe what we're used to. It's definitely a playoff hockey style, so it's important to see that we can pull those games out. A little bit of adversity there, and we get it done.
"It's a good team game against an opponent that makes you earn your goals and earn your outcome."
Washington failed to follow up big wins over Minnesota (on Feb. 15) and Toronto (on March 3) with subsequent triumphs over the last month, so getting the win over Winnipeg was big.
Video: Barry Trotz | March 14
"I thought it was really important," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "This game was really difficult for us, just because everybody is feeling out of sorts from the time change and the long trip. I thought we played a real hard game in San Jose. I know guys were talking about how they hadn't slept or hadn't gotten proper sleep because they were out of sorts. I thought we came out okay and we managed it. A couple of guys were still feeling the jet lag, if you will."
"I give the guys a lot of credit because we fought through that. It wasn't really easy; we probably needed an extra day and we'll probably feel fine [Tuesday]. But it was a little bit of a difficult challenge for our guys, and I thought everybody tried to stay within the structure of our team."
Washington comes into Thursday's game in Brooklyn having won two straight games. The Caps haven't won as many as three straight games in more than two months, since a five-game Washington winning streak came to an end on Jan. 11 with a loss to Carolina. Since that winning streak ended, the Caps have been a very ordinary 12-10-4 team. With 13 games remaining in the regular season, the Caps are seeking to put together a strong finishing kick here heading into the playoffs.
"It's huge," says Caps goalie Philipp Grubauer. "You look at the standings and every point matters now. You lose one, you drop. You win one, you're back in first [place]. So we've got to play the right way. We keep playing teams that are fighting for [playoff] spots, and so are we. We are fighting for the points here.
"It's been huge putting four points together, and it was a great game from us."
Over their last 11 games, the Caps have yielded only 28 goals. Since an ugly 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks in Chicago on Feb. 17, Washington has allowed the second fewest goals among all Eastern Conference teams. Toronto has given up only 26 goals over the same time span, but the Leafs have played only nine games to Washington's 11 over that stretch.
"Since the Chicago game, I think we've bored down a little bit," says Grubauer. "We've been paying attention to details and it's been a step forward every time. I think we're learning and learning and moving forward in the right direction."
For the Islanders, this home-and-home set with the Capitals is critical. New York's playoff hopes are teetering; the Isles have 13 games remaining - including nine at home - but they are eight points south of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference standings, and they've got three teams to climb over in order to get there.
Even if they were able to run the table the rest of the way - an extremely tall order to be sure - there is no guarantee it would be enough to get them in. The Islanders are only 16-12-4 on home ice this season, so a home heavy homestretch may not deliver the bump the Islanders need, either.
The Isles just returned from a four-game road trip out west, and they won the trip finale 5-2 over the Flames in Calgary on Sunday despite being outshot 52-27. That victory ended the Islanders' eight-game losing streak (0-4-4) and left New York with a 1-0-3 mark for the trip.
New York is an offensive juggernaut, or at least it has been for most of the season. The Isles rank eighth in the NHL with an average of 3.17 goals per game, but that averaged has dipped recently as the Isles have netted 31 goals in their last 13 games (2.38 goals per game). The Islanders' biggest problem is in their own end of the ice, where they've had difficulty stemming the tide. The Islanders have yielded 3.51 goals per game this season, ranking dead last in the league in that department.
Recently, the Isles have been bleeding shots against, too. New York has permitted 50 or more shots on goal six times this season, and all six of those occurrences have come in the team's last 25 games. Remarkably, the Isles own a 3-2-1 record in those six games.
No other NHL team has permitted 50 or more shots in as many as six games since the 1993-94 Los Angeles Kings had six such games over what was an 84-game regular season slate in those days.