February 4 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre
Time: 1:00 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 34-11-6
Montreal Canadiens 30-15-7
The Capitals make a quick trip north of the border to Montreal on Saturday to take on the Canadiens in the finale of the three-game season's series between the two teams. Saturday's Montreal matinee is the Caps' last road game until after their bye week; they'll head home for the better part of a fortnight after facing the Habs.
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Washington's 14-game point streak came to a halt in Ottawa early last week when the Caps suffered a 3-0 shutout defeat to the Sens. Starting with that loss, the Caps have alternated losses and wins in their last four games. Most recently, the Capitals earned a 5-3 victory over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night at Verizon Center. Saturday's game against the Habs is another opportunity for the Caps to start up another winning run.
Each member of Washington's top line scored in the victory over the B's, and two more forward lines were also heard from as Braden Holtby made 30 saves to earn his 25th win of the season. The Caps were dented for a pair of Boston power-play goals, but held the B's off the board at even strength until the penultimate minute of the contest. Washington outscored Boston 4-1 at five-on-five in Wednesday's win.
"Our five-on-five play has improved this year, production-wise at least," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. "It seems like we're a little bit more potent. It all comes down to puck battles and puck support all over the ice. That allows us to play fast and that's the fun part of the game. When you do the dirty work to have the puck more, that plays to our strength."
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Perhaps the biggest reason for Washington's presence at the top of the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference standings is the team's overall play at five-on-five. Last season, the Caps finished second in the league to Dallas in five-on-five scoring, totaling 166 goals (an average of 2.02 per game), just one fewer than the Stars had.
Heading into Friday night's slate of NHL activity, the Caps are tied with Minnesota with 117 five-on-five goals, an average of 2.29 goals per game for Washington.
In 2015-16, the Capitals finished a respectable fifth in the NHL in five-on-five goals against, with 128 (an average of 1.56 per game). This season, Washington leads the league in fewest five-on-five goals against by a wide margin, with just 64 in its 51 games for an average of 1.25 per game.
While Washington led the league with a plus-38 five-on-five goal differential last season, it has improved its five-on-five play at both ends of the ice. The Caps are scoring roughly a quarter of a goal more per game this season at five-on-five, and they're permitting roughly a third of a goal less per game at fives.
Once again, the Caps lead the NHL in five-on-five goal differential, but this time around the difference is greater. Washington is at a whopping plus-53 after 51 games. So while the Caps were the league's best five-on-five team last season and they're the best in that regard once again in 2016-17, they've improved by a fair amount in the process.
"I don't really know exactly what the stats are," says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie, "but I feel like at five-on-five we have a lot of lines contributing. We have a lot of guys scoring goals. Obviously [there is] the run that [Evgeny Kuznetsov's] line has been on. We've been pitching in and we've been getting a lot of goals from [Jay Beagle].
"I think that's a lot of it. I think our in-zone play, when we need to we're getting more guys to the front of the net, and we're getting some second- and third-chance goals, some rebound goals. Pucks are going in right now and we're reading off each other really well."
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Oshie is correct. Last season, the Caps got a total of 62 goals from all forwards outside of the top six, including those players who came up and down from AHL Hershey over the course of the season. Thus far in 2016-17, all forwards outside of the top six have already contributed 47 goals - or nearly a goal per game - to the Capitals' offensive cause.
Additionally, the top six's contribution to the Caps' attack has nudged up ever so slightly. Last season, those six forwards contributed an average of 1.89 goals per game (155 in 82). This season, the average is up to 1.98 (101 goals in 51 games).
Finally, Washington blueliners are contributing 2.25 points per game to the Capitals' attack thus far this season, the highest rate for any group of District defensemen since 1993-94.
Montreal is leading the NHL's Atlantic Division with 67 points, the lowest point total of any of the league's four division leaders. The Habs roared out to a 13-1-1 start this season, but they've been fairly ordinary since. Montreal is 17-14-6 since that torrid start to the season.
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Winning streaks of eight and four games were included in the Habs' swift start, but they've managed just one three-game winning streak since; that came in the first three games of calendar 2017. The Canadiens are just 5-6-1 in their last dozen games since that modest three-game spree.
Montreal opened up a large lead in the Atlantic Division standings with its fast start, but the Habs have seen that lead shrink over the last couple months. While most of the Atlantic is mired in mediocrity, the Ottawa Senators have played great hockey in their first season under new coach Guy Boucher, and the Sens are now seven points behind the Habs for the top spot in the division. Not only do the Sens have three games in hand on the Canadiens, the two teams also meet three more times later on this season. Each of those three meetings comes in the span of a single week from March 18-25.