Feb. 10 vs. New York Islanders at Capital One Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
New York Islanders 31-16-6
Washington Capitals 36-14-5
The Caps' four-game homestand concludes on Monday night when they host the New York Islanders in the final regular season meeting between the two Metropolitan Division rivals. The Caps have taken two of the first three games from the Isles this season, winning on each of their visits to Long Island.
Through the first two months of the season - essentially the first third of the season - the Caps forged a 19-4-5 mark, second in the league to that point of the season, trailing only Boston. Washington was fourth in the league with an average of 3.61 goals per game, and it was tied for 11th in the circuit with an average of 2.89 goals against per contest.
Both special teams were strong to that point of the season, too. The Caps' power play outfit clicked on 25.3 percent of their opportunities to rank fifth in the league, while the penalty kill was 12th with a kill rate of 83 percent. It's also worth noting here that Washington ranked fifth in the league with a "net" power play rate of 23 percent.
Through Saturday night's 7-2 home ice loss to the Flyers, the Caps have played 27 games since the end of November, and they've got 27 more ahead of them. Essentially, we're two-thirds of the way through now, so it's time to look at that middle third.
The Caps went 17-10-0 in those 27 games, the league's fifth best record (.630 points pct.) over that stretch. Two of the four teams ahead of them in the middle third of the season are fellow Metro Division occupants Pittsburgh (.759) and Columbus (.717). The other two teams are also from the Eastern Conference: Tampa Bay (.774) and Toronto (.643).
Over those last 27 games, Washington's rate of 3.52 goals per game ranks fourth while its 3.11 goals against per game is tied for 15th. Worth noting too, the top five teams in fewest goals against over that span are all from the Eastern Conference.
As for special teams, the Caps' power play ranked 29th with a 15.2 percent success rate. Even worse, when a spate of shorthanded goals against is factored in, Washington's "net" power play rating of 7.6 percent is last in the league over the middle third of the season.
Fortunately, the Caps' penalty killing corps has more than handled its end, ranking third with an impressive 85.1 percent kill rate. Washington's penalty killing prowess over the middle third kept the Caps' special teams index just over 100, at 100.3, but that's down from 108.3 in the first third.
Finding a way to boost the power play and improving their play in their own end are the areas where the Caps will seek to improve in the final third of the regular season, and both of those shortcomings were evident in Saturday's loss to Philadelphia.
The Caps aren't in danger of falling out of playoff contention; they've built enough standings equity that they could go .500 the rest of the way and still exceed 100 points. But the idea isn't to coast in, it's to be playing at your peak in as many areas of your game as possible as the playoffs approach. We can see that Washington has regressed in some aspects of its game, and that other clubs in its division and conference have closed the gap in the middle third of the campaign.
The first step of shoring things up over that final third is taking on the Islanders, and responding to Saturday night's debacle.
"It was not a good night," said Caps coach Todd Reirden after Saturday's game. "It's up to us to get away from the rink [Sunday], and be back, ready to play another divisional opponent and see what our response is. That's where we're at. It's an 82-game season, it's unacceptable, there is no way around saying that [Saturday's game] was good; it wasn't.
"Now, it's [about] what does our team do as a response? We've been good at responding in the past, but we'll see how it goes on Monday."
New York comes into town in fourth place in the Metro, nine points behind Washington. The Isles occupy the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, and if the season were to end today, they would face the Capitals in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But with nearly two months of season remaining, the Isles are embroiled in a multi-team chase for playoff positioning, a battle that seems destined to leave a good team or two on the outside looking in.
The Islanders have been in a bit of a funk of their own recently. Since the turn of the calendar, New York has won six of 15 games (6-6-3), with only two of the victories coming against teams currently in the playoff picture (a 1-0 win over Colorado and a 4-3 overtime win over Dallas, both at home).
New York and Washington last met just over three weeks ago on Long Island. Down 4-1 to the Isles at the start of the third, the Caps roared from behind with a five-goal third period to claim a 6-4 win over the Isles in Washington's final game before its midseason break. Both the Caps (3-3-0) and the Islanders (2-2-0) have played .500 hockey since returning from break.
Most recently, the Islanders dropped a 3-1 Saturday night decision to the Lightning in Tampa. That game started a two-game trip for the Isles, a journey that concludes on Monday in Washington. New York heads home to host Philadelphia on Tuesday, and then the Isles head out west for a four-game road trip.