Washington plays its 54th game of the season tonight at Verizon Center, hosting the Carolina Hurricanes in the second game of a four-game homestand and closing out the four-game season's series with their Metropolitan Division rivals from the south.
The Caps will be roughly two-thirds through the 82-game regular season slate, and looking back at how they've evolved from the start of the season up to this point, it sure seems as though the Caps' overall game - and the individual games of some of its hottest players of late - began to coalesce late in December, shortly after the league's three-day holiday break.
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Up in Brooklyn on Dec. 27, the Caps played their first game after the break, suffering a 4-3 loss to the Isles in a bit of an uneven performance. Daniel Winnik was a healthy scratch that night; he was back in the lineup for the following game, a Dec. 29 home date against the New Jersey Devils. Although the Cap lost that one, too (2-1 in a shootout), they had also finally settled on a winning lineup combination.
The Dec. 29 game against Jersey started a run in which the Caps settled on their current four line combinations. Jay Beagle, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams have missed a game here and there, but aside from that, the lineup has been fairly well set and that continuity has led to some incredible consistency and results.
Including a couple of games early in the season when those 12 forwards were in the lineup at the same time but perhaps playing with different linemates, the Capitals are now 15-1-2 when they dress the dozen forwards they dressed over the weekend, the same dozen forwards you'll see when you look at the lineup below. Washington has outscored the opposition by a combined 78-33 in the 18 games in which those dozen
Moreover, the Caps have had production from at least three different lines in 14 of 21 games since holiday break. The Caps are 16-2-2 in their last 20 games. During that span, the Nicklas Backstrom line has accounted for 25 goals, the Evgeny Kuznetsov line has managed 21, the Lars Eller line has scored 20 and the Jay Beagle line has chipped in with nine. Defensemen have added another 10 goals.
Continuity appears to be breeding consistency here in Washington, as the Caps have been rolling along with the most "set" lineup they've had in recent years.
"It's hard to say how much [it helps]," says Eller, "but it definitely helps. I think it has helped my line, I think it helps most everybody."
Health, as always, is also a factor. Knock on wood, the Caps have been on the right side of that equation this season, with the fewest man games lost in the league.
"Another key is we've been lucky," notes Eller. "We've been fortunate to not have many injuries, and when we do have them, it's been guys out for one or two games and not weeks and weeks. That's another thing we've had going for us this year. Not having injuries and having a full lineup definitely helps."
Video: Coach Trotz talks to the media before #CapsCanes
A Pair To Beat A Full House - The Caps have built a third and fourth line that are often capable of exploiting the opponent's third defensive pairing on a given night, and they've also forged a strong third defensive pairing of their own, one that's been all but impenetrable of late.
Playing mostly with Nate Schmidt, occasionally with Taylor Chorney and for a handful of games with Dmitry Orlov while John Carlson was on the sidelines, veteran Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik is in the midst of an impressive stretch of hockey in which he has been a plus or even player in 27 of his last 28 games.
The standard third pairing of Orpik and Schmidt has been steady and consistent all season. The duo has been excellent at defending and has had strong puck possession numbers as well. Among all NHL defensemen who've played at least 40 games this season, Orpik's 1.37 goals against per 60 minutes played rating is second in the league, behind only Montreal's Shea Weber (1.19), this according to puckalytics.com. Schmidt isn't far behind; he's sixth in the league at 1.47.
"Both of them have continued to grow," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Brooks has actually from year one [in Washington], he has reduced his minutes. And now, everybody we put Brooks with, they get better. You see Schmitty coming out of his shell a little bit. I think Brooks is that steady pro factor back there; he plays in all those key moments for us.
"With Schmitty, you're seeing him grow with confidence. He has the mobility and the speed to defend really well, but his stick has gotten better and better. Now you're seeing him more involved in the offense. That's a compliment to Brooks being so steady back there and helping him along."
Like many of his teammates, Schmidt is in the midst of a career year offensively. With 13 points (one goal, 12 assists) in 46 games, Schmidt is just three points shy of matching his career best of 16 points, established last season.
Video: Nate Schmidt talks after #CapsCanes morning skate
"Brooks has been great," says Schmidt. "He's a guy who from the day that he got here, he has been trying to help as many of us along as he can because he realizes that's part of his role and that's just the kind of guy that he is.
"The way that our dynamic works between the two of us has helped my game along, has helped me get up in the play more and with a little more confidence when he's back there doing the right thing and playing things the right way and being steady for me. For an offensive guy or a guy who likes to get up in the play, that's all you can ask for.
It's difficult to measure the performance of stay-at-home defenders, but by virtually any measure, the 36-year-old Orpik is having a terrific season to date.
"It's better than last year," says Orpik. "That's probably the obvious answer. My main goal coming into every year is to be as consistent as possible. This has probably been my best year in terms of consistency. Obviously, being healthy contributes to that a lot. But I've been consistent with my preparation, and it's had a carryover for me on the ice."
Building Our Game - If there is one phrase that gets uttered in the Caps' locker room more than any other this season, it might be some variation of "We're just building our game," or "We're just trying to build our game."
Those comments often arise when questions are asked regarding standings, or the accumulation of standings points. Although the Capitals are currently sitting atop the NHL standings, they're not at all focused on winning a Presidents' Trophy or a conference or division championship.
Instead, the focus is on making improvements individually and collectively, and on being prepared to play each game as it falls off the calendar. The idea is to make the group better game-by-game so it's a finely honed and tuned machine a couple of months from now when the second season starts. If other baubles happen to be collected along the way, then so be it.
"I just think we've got a real competitive group and great leadership that has carried us to this point so far," says Carlson. "The more of that you have, the easier it is to show up for every game. Everyone is being held accountable all the time for how they play, and that's great to see.
"That's what leads you into success, especially when it gets to this time of year and you get right in the thick of things in terms of how many games you're playing. You're got to show up every night. There are too many good teams that can jump on you and make you look like a fool. I think that comes from within and how we treat every game, and the professionals we have on this team. And I think that's huge for us going forward."
In The Nets - Dating back to last season, Philipp Grubauer has had four of the last six starting assignments against Carolina. The Caps split the goaltending chores over the weekend, with Braden Holtby winning over the Habs in Montreal on Saturday and Grubauer whitewashing the Kings in Washington on Sunday.
Holtby gets the net back for Washington on Tuesday against the Hurricanes, as he takes aim on his 27th win of the season. Holtby is 11-0-0 with three shutouts, a 1.93 GAA and a .931 save pct. in his last 13 starts. He is 10-4-0 with a shutout, a 1.84 GAA and a .944 save pct. lifetime against Carolina.
Veteran workhorse Cam Ward has started 26 of Carolina's last 27 games, and he has made 44 starts this season. That's a lot of work for a guy who has made 51 and 52 appearances, respectively, over the last two seasons.
The Canes have had to lean on Ward because backup Eddie Lack has been plagued by injuries this season. Lack finally returned to active duty over the weekend, backing up Ward on Saturday night in Brooklyn in Carolina's 5-4 overtime victory over the Islanders.
On Tuesday night in Washington, Lack sees his first NHL action since Nov. 10 and makes his first start since Nov. 6 when he takes the crease against the Capitals. Lifetime against Washington, Lack is 1-1-1 with a 2.67 GAA and a .905 save pct. in three starts.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and Canes to look when they take the ice tonight at Verizon Center for the last of their four meetings in 2016-17.
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
53-Skinner, 33-Ryan, 21-Stempniak
20-Aho, 11-Staal, 16-Lindholm
23-McGinn, 49-Rask, 86-Teravainen
42-Nordstrom, 18-McClement, 25-Stalberg
29-Bickell (multiple sclerosis)
Stick tap to Carter Myers for some of the statistical data contained herein