March 21 vs. Calgary Flames at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM, 1500 AM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Calgary Flames 41-27-4
Washington Capitals 46-17-8
The Capitals open up a three-game homestand on Tuesday night against the resurgent and red-hot Calgary Flames. The Caps haven't seen the Flames since Oct. 30, when they earned a 3-1 win over them in Calgary on their first extended road trip of the 2016-17 season.
With Calgary and Columbus coming in for the first two games of the homestand, the Caps will also finish off a stretch of eight straight games against formidable opponents who are either firmly in the playoff picture or within a stone's throw of a postseason berth. The Caps are 2-3-1 to start that stretch; they lost all three games on a California road trip before rebounding with a 2-0-1 performance last week.
Most recently, the Caps earned a 5-3 road win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night. T.J. Oshie had a hat trick, Nicklas Backstrom had four assists to help Braden Holtby earn his 36th win of the season.
For most of last week, the Caps looked more like they did in the middle 40 or so games of the season than at any time since their bye week in mid-February.
"It feels like we're playing back to how we want to play," says Caps right wing T. J. Oshie. "There are always going to be ups and downs, and it's all about how you rebound from that. We didn't play as well as we wanted to in California, but I think we've responded well since then. There are still a couple of notches that we've got to try to get our game to before the end of the season, but since that small slump there we have taken a couple of strides and we're going in the right direction."
After missing 15 games because of a hand injury, Andre Burakovsky returned to the Washington lineup on Saturday against the Lightning, and he didn't miss a beat. He had an assist to go along with seven shots on net and 11 shot attempts in just over 15 minutes of work, instantly making the Caps a more dangerous five-on-five team.
"Having Burky back, the guys that came in, they did a good job of filling in," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. "But Burky is not a player that you can replace, per se. He's got that speed and that versatility that other teams have to honor. You could see it in that Tampa game; he was up and down the ice, he was shooting pucks everywhere and I think he had like 10 attempted shots or something like that. When that's happening, it creates chaos."
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Burakovsky has 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in his last 15 games, but his two linemates definitely missed him. Brett Connolly and Lars Eller combined for three goals and seven points in the 15 games Burakovsky missed. The same two players totaled 14 goals and 23 points in the 15 games before Burakovsky's absence.
"That third line, when they've been together for us, they've been pretty dangerous," says Wilson. "You've got [Brett Connolly] and Burky who are both great snipers, and then you've got Lars [Eller], who is a great workhorse down the middle.
"When we have that line after line after line going over the boards, it can be tough on another team. They don't get a break. We come out with our top six, which includes some of the most talented players in the league. Then you get that third line, which has a couple of great snipers and then a fourth line that's big and can be heavy on you and wear you down."
In 21 of its 71 games to date this season, the Capitals have dressed the same dozen forwards as they did on Saturday, with Burakovsky back in the lineup. Washington is 18-1-2 in those 21 games.
The Flames suffered a four-game losing streak in mid-January, just ahead of the NHL's All-Star break. Calgary then eked out a 3-2 overtime win over the Senators in Ottawa on Jan. 26 in its final game before the break. That victory left the Flames just a game above what passes for .500 in the NHL at 25-24-3.
In hindsight, the win over Ottawa looks like a turning point. Starting with that contest, the Flames are 17-3-1 in their last 21 games. Calgary recently reeled off 10 consecutive victories, outscoring the opposition by a combined 38-18 in the process. It's a remarkable turnaround for a team that started the season 5-10-1, and one that' almost certain to propel the Flames into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
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"I think they've got a lot of confidence, they've got a lot of trust in their game in terms of their structure," says Caps coach Barry Trotz of the Flames. "Their top guys are scoring at a real high rate, like [Johnny] Gaudreau. I thought he was outstanding [Sunday] night [against Los Angeles].
"They're sneaky good in a lot of areas. Their depth in terms of their lines is really good. The [Matthew] Tkachuk and [Michael] Frolik line is sneaky good; they've been together all year. [Sean] Monahan and Gaudreau have been fantastic since they've been together. [Troy] Brouwer's line does a real good job with [Kris] Versteeg, and their back end can really skate. You've got guys like [T.J.] Brodie and [Dougie] Hamilton and [Mark] Giordano, who is playing as good as I've seen him play in a long time. And [Brian] Elliott is playing good in goal."
The Flames are also 6-0-1 in their last seven road games. Tuesday's game starts a three-game road trip for the Flames, who will also visit Nashville and
Calgary boasts a dozen skaters with double-digit goal totals this season, including a pair of defensemen, Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano. Tuesday's game against the Flames should prove to be a strong test for the Caps.
"They're playing good right now," says Caps center and Calgary native Jay Beagle of the Flames, "and that's awesome just to have a team like that coming in right now. It's better to be playing teams down the backstretch that are fighting for playoff positioning, and trying to get into the same mode as you are, and playing great.
"You want to go up against the best. That changes throughout the year, some teams are hot and some teams cool off. So when you're playing a team that is hot, like the Calgary Flames right now, that's perfect. It will be a good test. They have a lot of depth, a great team, great defense, and their goalie is playing really well. So it's going to be fun."