Jan. 5 vs. San Jose Sharks at Capital One Arena
Time: 12:30 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
San Jose Sharks 19-21-3
Washington Capitals 28-9-5
After spending the last two weeks traveling for every game, the Caps can finally unpack their bags, albeit briefly. The Capitals open up a two-game homestand on Sunday afternoon against the San Jose Sharks.
The Caps are in the midst of a two-month stretch in which all eight of their road trips are of the one-game variety. Recently, they've had a handful of one-game homestands woven into those solo road forays, so it's not particularly surprising that they've wobbled a bit of late.
The Caps still own the league's best record, and they ended their first two-game regulation skid of the season with a 4-3 win over the Hurricanes in Carolina on Friday, a win that puts them just above break-even (6-5-0) in their last 11 contests.
Ilya Samsonov won his eight consecutive road start from the outset of his NHL career on Friday, stopping 38 of the single-game career high 41 shots he faced. The 22-year-old rookie goaltender is now 11-1-0 in his dozen starts this season.
"He played unbelievable," says Caps center Lars Eller, who had a goal and an assist in the win over Carolina. "But we're seeing it almost every night he's playing; it's like that's this level. I think he has surpassed all the expectations. You think of that young a rookie goaltender, and it's not easy. Sometimes you don't play for two weeks and he comes in, and I can't think of a game where we didn't play well. It's a luxury to have two goalies like we have."
Braden Holtby gets the start in goal for the Caps on Sunday afternoon, looking to halt a three-game personal slide, his longest regulation skid in the regular season in just under two years.
Washington may not have Evgeny Kuznetsov on Sunday, two days after he also had a goal and an assist in Friday's victory in Carolina. Kuznetsov is the latest to be felled by whatever bug has been coursing its way through the Caps locker room since the NHL's holiday break ended just over a week ago. Multiple Caps have been laid low to one degree or another; games and practices have been missed, and capacities and energy stores have been diminished throughout the room.
Kuznetsov did not practice with his teammates on Saturday afternoon, and his presence in the lineup on Sunday will be a game-time decision.
"We've got a few guys that are just on the verge of that the last three days as well," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, "So it was best to have him not come in and practice today, so he didn't even come to the rink. We'll have to see how he is in the morning.
Video: Reirden | January 4
"It's just a different type of sickness. It's still definitely in our room still, and we're just trying to manage it, doing the best we can to limit time that guys are spending with each other, get our work done, and then get them out of here so they have time to go home and get their proper rest."
Travis Boyd would draw into the lineup in the middle of Washington's third line - with wingers Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik - if Kuznetsov is unable to answer the bell, and Eller would slide up a line to be the pivot between Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie. Kuznetsov has been hot, he is riding a four-game point streak (four goals, two assists), with multiple points in each of his last two games.
San Jose will be playing for the second time in as many afternoons on Sunday; the Sharks defeated the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Saturday afternoon, 3-2. Sunday's game in Washington is the penultimate contest in a five-game road trip for San Jose. The Sharks finish the journey on Tuesday in St. Louis.
Washington encountered the Sharks in San Jose just over a month ago in California, skating off with a 5-2 victory. The Caps scored five consecutive goals after the Sharks took an early 1-0 lead in that one. The Capitals caught the Sharks at their hottest point of this season; San Jose entered that Dec. 3 contest at SAP Center with 11 wins in its previous 13 games. But that loss to the Caps spurred a six-game slide (0-5-1) that ultimately resulted in coach Pete DeBoer being relieved of his duties. Assistant coach Bob Boughner took over behind the Sharks' bench on Dec. 11.
Since Boughner took over the coaching reins, the Sharks are 4-5-2, and they bring a modest two-game winning streak with them to D.C., their first pair of consecutive wins since Nov. 29-30, the two games immediately preceding their meeting with the Capitals last month. San Jose is 4-9-2 since the aforementioned hot streak of 11 wins in 13 games came to a halt.
"I'd say they're a little bit more aggressive in different areas of the ice than they were with DeBoer," says Reirden of the Sharks. "And they have changed their lines a little bit and gone with a more veteran first line now. So that gave them a push the other night when I was watching their game versus [Pittsburgh]. And then I'm going to watch the rest of their game [Saturday at Columbus], obviously you have it recording as we speak, just to see what other different nuances that they're going to show us.
"That's the challenge with new coaches and different things, but I think they're going to play aggressive, they're going to play with passion, and I think those were some elements that were missing in their game earlier."