Feb. 7 vs. Colorado Avalanche at Capital One Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, FAN 106.7
Colorado Avalanche 22-22-8
Washington Capitals 29-18-6
Washington moves into the back half of its six-game homestand when it hosts the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night in the District. The Caps have won two of three games on the homestand to date, downing a pair of Western Conference clubs.
Most recently, the Caps earned a 3-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night. That victory and a 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames were sandwiched around a 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, as the Caps have played three straight one-goal games to start the homestand. For Washington, the most encouraging development has been a noticeable defensive improvement that extends from goaltender Braden Holtby outward.
"He's been really good," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen of Holtby, "really good. I'd say for over half of the game [Tuesday] we were in pretty good control of things. But they had some looks where it could have changed the momentum of the game and he was there to shut the door. He looked pretty solid to me."
The best of those "looks" to which Niskanen referred came just past the midpoint of the second when Holtby stopped Canucks center Bo Horvat on a penalty shot opportunity to preserve Washington's 1-0 lead until its attack could muster an insurance goal.
Washington has now yielded six goals in three games after being dented for an average of 4.31 goals per game over a 13-game span from Dec. 31-Jan. 31. Holtby has stopped 95 of 101 shots (.941 save pct.) he has faced in those last three tilts.
"We've proven that we can do it for spurts," says Niskanen. "We've just got to get to that high level consistently and we've talked about some things systematically, just reinforcing what our structure and our principles are. It's about playing fast and being physical and competitive in your own end. A lot of defending in your own end is just intensity and battle, so we're headed in the right direction the last couple of games here. We've tightened up without the puck, and we'll keep working at it."
The Caps took Wednesday off, but when they reconvene for Thursday's morning skate they'll still have a number of areas to work on. They've scored only 15 goals in their last seven home games (2-3-2) and they've had a habit of letting leads slip away in recent home games, too, something they avoided on Tuesday against the Canucks, though Vancouver did score both of its goals in the third period.
"I think we did a great job," says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie. "The second period is usually one of our better periods and we didn't have a great one there. We kind of took a step back and then sure enough right at the end there, we let them back in. That seems to be a theme here lately is getting leads and then letting teams back in. So we've got to find a way to start putting teams away and start playing like a championship team."
Along with Holtby, Oshie was one of the primary drivers of Tuesday's victory. He scored Washington's goal on a turnover he forced, one of his team-leading five takeaways in the game. Oshie seemed to have an impact on virtually every shift, and his team high five hits were a welcome element against a Canucks team that was playing for the second time in as many nights and the third time in the last four nights.
"That's something I've been trying to get in my game here this last little bit," says Oshie, "is trying to wear teams down. We're kind of just maybe past those dog days of January and February where guys are getting a little slow. You want to push [defensemen] back and you want to give them something to think about when they go back for the puck every time.
"Myself, [Ovechkin], Tom [Wilson] and [Devante Smith-Pelly], those are areas where we can take change and build some momentum from some physicality and eventually that's going to open up some more room for us to make plays."
When the Caps met the Avs in Denver in mid-November, Colorado was leading the league in goals scored. Washington handed the Avs a 3-2 overtime loss in that Nov. 16 game, with Nicklas Backstrom supplying the game-winner in the extra session.
In the immediate aftermath of that loss to Washington, the Avalanche went on a season-high six-game winning streak in which it doubled up the opposition by a combined count of 28-14. After a 5-2 road win in Florida on Dec. 6, the Avs owned a share of the top spot in the Western Conference with a 17-7-5 record.
But Colorado has been in an extended slide for the last two months, winning just five of its last 23 games (5-15-3) and earning the fewest points (13) of any NHL team over that stretch. As a result, the Avalanche has tumbled out of a playoff position in the Western Conference, trailing Vancouver by two points for the second wild card berth. The Avs also trail St. Louis by a point.
Colorado's penalty killing outfit ranks dead last in the league with a dismal 69.9 percent kill rate over those last 23 games, and only Edmonton (93) has yielded more goals than the Avalanche (92), though the Oilers have played two more games during that span.
The Avs' top forward trio of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen is as formidable as any in the league. That trio has combined for 79 goals in 52 games on the season, including 31 during the team's aforementioned 23-game stretch of misery. The rest of the Colorado team has combined for 35 goals in those last 23 contests.