On Thursday night in New Jersey, the Caps will face the Devils in the final game for both teams before the NHL's All-Star break. For Washington, Thursday's game also concludes a particularly grueling stretch of scheduling in which the Caps play 17 games in a span of 31 nights.
With a four-day break stretched out ahead of them after tonight, the Caps merely need to keep their foot on the gas for another 60 minutes. Because that break is so tantalizingly close now after the Caps have played so much hockey in such a short period of time over the last month, going full throttle tonight in New Jersey can be a challenge.
Video: Holtby on #CapsDevils, All-Star break
"Definitely," sasy Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "It's a mental challenge for sure. That's why we have a good leadership group in here, is to make sure that we have everyone making sure that the break hasn't started yet; it's after the game, after we've competed to win a game. [We have to] make sure that we integrate that. I think we have a veteran enough group that we can do that.
Despite losing the first game of that stretch of 17 games in 31 nights, Washington has put together a fairly remarkable 12-2-2 record over the first 16 of those 17 games.
Missing Man - Caps right wing T.J. Oshie returned home to attend to a family matter and will not suit up for Thursday's game in New Jersey. The Caps played without center Jay Beagle (illness) in Tuesday's 3-0 loss to the Senators in Ottawa, with Chandler Stephenson coming up from AHL Hershey on extremely short notice to fill in.
Stephenson is still with the Caps, so he'll play again tonight in Newark, centering Washington's fourth line while Beagle moves up to fill in for Oshie on the right side of the Caps' top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
"Beags has been a guy that you can put up there, and he'll do some good things on that line," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "I don't know where his energy level will be, and so I have a couple other guys I've moved up there; I've had Connolly up there and I've had Burakovsky up there, multiple guys up there. But I'm going to start with Beags up there and we'll see where he is."
Video: Trotz talks before tonight's game against New Jersey
Continuity Is Key - Over the course of its 14-game point streak, Washington scored four or more goals in 11 of 14 games. Compare that to the first 24 games of the season, when the Caps managed four or more goals just six times during that span.
Beginning with their Dec. 29 game against the Devils at Verizon Center, the Caps' coaching staff settled on four line combinations and - except for the odd absence here and there for injury, illness and the like - they've stuck with those combinations.
Video: Orpik on tonight's game against the Devils
In a 6-2 win over the Devils here on Dec. 31, Washington got an even-strength goal from all four of its lines. That isn't the only time it's happened since then, either. With Stephenson in for Beagle on Tuesday in Ottawa, the fourth line didn't play as much as usual. But with the benefit of some hindsight, Trotz expressed some regret about that on Thursday morning.
"I thought Chandler came in and did a really good job," says Trotz. "I look back and [hindsight being] 20/20, I wish I would have played that line a little bit more, the Stephenson, [Daniel] Winnik and [Tom] Wilson line. I thought they had the right make-up to cause Ottawa a little more trouble, a little more energy and all that.
"Chandler has done a really good job. He's got exceptional skating ability, he's a good playmaker, defensively he's been really good and his face-offs seem to be good. I'm going to play that line just like I always do with Beags there and if it's not quite working I can always throw Beags right in there."
The continuity and stability we've seen from the Washington lines for the last month have led to consistency, offense and wins. The Caps have put together a strong four-line attack that's difficult to defend against.
Video: Ovechkin talks #CapsDevils, All-Star break
"It's changed to a four line league, that's for sure," says Winnik. "I think a lot has to do with the fighting slowly being evaporated from our game. There is no distinct fighter left on any team. There might be a couple, but even those guys can still play.
"You need guys to contribute on all four lines and to be in all situations. I think Darryl Sutter's quote about it is the best. I think he was asked during the playoffs - maybe it was the Stanley Cup final or something - 'Are you worried when your fourth line is out there against the other team's first line?' And his response was, 'If they can't play against another team's first line, they shouldn't be in the league, then.' And I think that's true. If you can't handle yourself against another team's best, then you've got some work to do."
In The Nets - Washington will go back to Braden Holtby between the pipes for Thursday's game with the Devils. Holtby was in net when the Caps suffered a 2-1 shootout loss to New Jersey on Dec. 29 at Verizon Center in the first of the four meetings between the two Metro Division rivals this season.
In his last 20 starts, Holtby is 13-2-3 with five shutouts, a 1.72 GAA and a .939 save pct. Lifetime against New Jersey, Holtby is 10-3-2 with three shutouts, a 1.91 GAA and a .929 save pct.
For New Jersey, Keith Kinkaid gets his third consecutive start against Washington this season. On the season, he is 6-5-2 with a 2.41 GAA and a .925 save pct. In three career starts against Washington, Kinkaid is 1-2-0 with a 3.62 GAA and an .885 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and Devils to look when they hit the ice on Thursday at the Prudential Center:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 83-Beagle
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 18-Stephenson, 43-Wilson
74-Carlson (lower body, day-to-day)
77-Oshie (family reasons)
9-Hall, 19-Zajac, 21-Palmieri
44-Wood, 14-Henrique, 13-Cammalleri
37-Zacha, 16-Josefsen, 23-Noesen
25-Smith-Pelley, 38-Fiddler, 11-Parenteau
8-Bennett (lower body)