January 7 vs. Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: WFED 1500 and Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 24-9-5
Ottawa Senators 20-13-4
Less than a week after they edged the Ottawa Senators 2-1 at Verizon Center, the Capitals are off to the great white north to face the Sens in their home habitat on Saturday night. Washington carries a four-game winning streak with it on its two-game journey through eastern Canada.
Washington won its fourth straight game on Thursday night, blanking the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-0 to halt the Jackets' impressive 16-game winning streak. Braden Holtby made 29 saves to earn his fourth shutout of the season and the 27th of his NHL career.
Columbus was aiming to match the league standard - set by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins - of 17 straight victories in Thursday's game. The Jackets fell behind early on Daniel Winnik's goal at 5:06 of the first period. Just over six minutes later, the Caps got a fortuitous bounce on John Carlson's second goal in as many games, and it put the Jackets down two goals for the first time in the life of their streak.
Columbus probably outplayed the Caps by a bit in the first frame despite that deficit, but Holtby made a series of clutch stops early in the second period, preventing the Jackets from halving the lead. When Nate Schmidt scored midway through the third, the Jackets were teetering. And when Andre Burakovsky scored late in the middle stanza, it was all over but the shouting.
Washington killed off three Columbus power plays in the third period to preserve Holtby's shutout, but by then the Caps had already killed most of what remained of the Blue Jackets' will, and they'd taken the starch out of the Columbus forecheck.
"Against a forechecking team like that," says Holtby of the Jackets, "it puts a lot of pressure on our defensemen to read off each other, and I thought we were on the same page all night, whether on reverses or overs or bypasses. I think that wore on them in their forecheck. You know a team like that is going to get chances; that's just the way it is with the amount of chemistry they have. But we stuck with it, capitalized on our chances and stayed focused on our goal the whole game."
During the life of the remarkable Columbus winning streak, the Capitals were no slouches, either. They went 10-3-3 over the same stretch. But they also went from two points ahead of the Jackets in the Metropolitan Division standings to seven points down to Columbus. Beating the Blue Jackets on Thursday was the Caps' first opportunity to take matters into their own hands and try to cut into that deficit.
"That's what makes their streak a little more impressive," says Carlson. "We haven't done too bad, but there is a big difference in playing good hockey like we have and excellence like they have had."
Prior to departing for Ottawa on Friday morning, the Caps made a roster move. Washington recalled forward Liam O'Brien from Hershey of the AHL. The move was made to give the Capitals a spare (13th) forward to carry along on the trip in the event of injury or illness.
With 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in 28 games with the Bears this season, O'Brien has already exceeded his AHL points total (16) from last season, when he skated in 59 games with the Bears. O'Brien has 13 games worth of NHL experience, all of it coming in the early weeks of the 2014-15 season. He has one goal and one assist for two points and 23 PIM for his NHL career. O'Brien averaged 7:33 per night in ice time during his '14-15 stint with the Capitals.
While Washington was rallying from a two-goal deficit in the third period to defeat Toronto in overtime on Tuesday and ending the Jackets' run on Thursday, the Senators were scattered about, enjoying their five-day "bye week." Their Saturday night game against the Capitals amounts to the back end of a drawn out set of home-and-home games; the Sens' last game before their break was against the Capitals on the road and their first game after the break is against the Caps at home.
The Sens went into the break on a down note, losing each of the three games they played between the end of the NHL's holiday break and the start of their bye week. Ottawa did manage to claim a point in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 29. Ottawa scored 15 goals during the life of a four-game winning streak going into the holiday break, but it has scored only six goals over the course of its current three-game slide.
While the Sens were sitting idle, the Toronto Maple Leafs crept ever closer into Ottawa's rear view mirror. Toronto won five in a row before losing to the Caps in Washington on Tuesday, but the Leafs pulled a point from that game as well.
Heading into Friday night's slate of NHL activity, the Senators are tied for second with Boston in the Atlantic Division standings, 10 points behind front-running Montreal and only two points ahead of surging Toronto. The Leafs visit New Jersey on Friday, and they can move into a tie with Ottawa and Boston with a victory over the Devils.
While Ottawa will be taking the ice for the first time in six nights on Saturday, the Caps will be playing their fifth game in eight nights. Fortunately for the Caps, they seem to thrive on that rhythm of playing virtually every other day. They're 4-0-1 in those five games and have fared well in similar stretches in recent seasons.
"I think we're in a better place and we have a little rhythm to our game," said Caps coach Barry Trotz on Thursday morning, "just because the schedule forces us to have some rhythm. Our team seems to relish the rhythm of the season. Sometimes we call it 'Groundhog's Day,' but they seem to - when they get some good rhythm - play better and more consistently."