Seventy-one games have solved nothing between the Capitals and the Columbus Blue Jackets. With 11 games in 20 nights remaining to be played for each of the Metropolitan Division's top three teams, the Caps and the Jackets are in a flatfooted tie for the top spot in the Metro, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are a single point behind them.
"It's good," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. "We don't have to talk about motivation like we did last year, or earlier this year. This is going to be good for us."
Washington faces Columbus twice in those last 11 games, including Thursday night at Verizon Center in the middle match of the Caps' three-game homestand. But first, the Caps must face another formidable foe in the Calgary Flames.
Video: Barry Trotz talks before #CapsFlames
"They've got a lot of parts of their game going on right now," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "I think they've got a lot of confidence. They've sort of built their game. I think they were 5-10-1 to start the season or something like that, and they've come full circle and they're playing good hockey right now. You talk about being in rhythm, they've got a lot of rhythm in their game right now."
After a three-game trip to California proved fruitless and pointless for the Capitals, Washington returned home last week to start off a stretch in which they'll play five of six games at Verizon Center, where they're a daunting 28-6-2 this season. The Caps rebounded nicely last week, taking five of a possible six points and moving their collective game a shade closer to where they want it to be heading into the playoffs.
"I think it's a good sign that we didn't panic," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "I think we realized what it was on the West Coast; it just snowballed too quick without any practice days or anything like that to really get it back or to take a deep breath. I think that shows maturity, that we realized that and got back to our game once we got home."
Video: Rinkside Update: Justin Williams 3/21/17
The Thrill Of Competition - Three of the league's four best teams are in the Metropolitan Division this season, and with less than three weeks remaining in the season, those three teams are separated by a single point. Each team has 11 games remaining, and each will play five of those games at home.
What happens on the ice between now and April 9 will determine first-round playoff match-ups and seeding at the start of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. Quite a bit is at stake for all three teams.
"I don't think it was ever meant to be easy," says Niskanen. "Coming out of our division is going to be tough, with those other two teams on the other side. And whoever slides into that eight spot, you're not going to have an easy first-round match-up, either. The focus has just got to be on us. I think we know that if you want to advance, you've got to play well. You've got to play really well. It's really hard, but if you come through it, it's that much sweeter."
The Caps face Columbus twice, once in each city, but they're finished with the Penguins for the regular season. The Pens and Jackets have one head-to-head game remaining, in Pittsburgh on April 4. Both Washington and Columbus have three sets of back-to-back games remaining while the Pens have only two.
Video: Kuznetsov, Holtby and Orpik preview Tuesday's matchup
"For me," says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie, "I just think of how good a year I feel like we've had and for [the Jackets and Penguins] to be right there - I don't pay enough attention to what other teams are doing during the year - but for them to be right there, they've obviously played some really good hockey this year. I think it's going to be a pretty interesting and exciting stretch, and I think there is going to be some good playoff hockey in the postseason here."
The Caps are embracing the challenge.
"To tell you the truth, I love it," says Caps center Jay Beagle. "I think it's perfect. It forces us to be in playoff mode now. We were saying that today, and we're trying to make sure that we start ramping it up. And it's nice that we get to play Columbus this week.
"It's going to be good just to know where we're at and where we need to be. It will be a good test for the last 11 games to come into the playoffs playing our best and making sure that everything is fine tuned and that we're in playoff mode."
Video: Julian Coltre with this week's Amtrak on Track
In The Nets - Coming off a 5-3 win over the Lightning on Saturday in Tampa in which he recorded his 36th win of the season, Holtby goes back between the pipes tonight for the Caps against the Flames.
Tonight against Calgary, Holtby makes his 300th career NHL appearance. He owns a 185-71-31 career record with 31 shutouts, a 2.31 GAA and a .922 save pct. The only goaltender in NHL history with more wins than Holtby in his first 300 games in the league is Hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden (193).
Lifetime against the Flames, Holtby is 3-1-1 in six apperances with a 3.07 GAA and an .873 save pct.
In the Calgary nets, we will see Brian Elliott. Elliott carries an 11-game winning streak into Tuesday's game, matching a Calgary franchise record established by Mike Vernon during the team's Stanley Cup championship season of 1988-89.
Prior to the NHL"s All-Star break this season, Elliott owned a record of 9-12-2 to go along with a 2.88 GAA and an .892 save pct. In 17 appearances (16 starts) since, Elliott is 14-1-1 with two shutouts, a 1.88 GAA and a .935 save pct.
All Lined Up - The Caps kick off a three-game homestand on Tuesday night against the Calgary Flames, and here's how we expect the two sides to look when they take the ice for that tilt:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
93-Bennett, 11-Backlund, 67-Frolik
13-Gaudreau, 23-Monahan, 39-Chiasson
10-Versteeg, 18-Stajan, 36-Brouwer
17-Bouma, 25-F. Hamilton, 20-Lazar
5-Giordano, 27-D. Hamilton