Now that we're past the NHL's trade deadline, there is more of a clear delineation as to the designs of each of the 30 NHL teams. On Thursday, the Caps faced a New Jersey team that has clearly given up the ghost; the Devils moved three impending unrestricted free agent players in the days and weeks leading up to the deadline, and they're clearly looking at young players and getting an idea of what they have in the cupboard the rest of the way.
Under coach John Hynes, the Devils are a hard working - if under-talented - bunch, and they made the Capitals' night difficult, although Washington did emerge with a 1-0 victory at night's end. When the Dallas Stars visit the District on Monday night to close out the homestand, the Caps will see another team with virtually no chance to make the playoffs this season.
But in Saturday's middle match of the three-game homestand, the Caps face the Philadelphia Flyers for the last of four times this season. Many believed the Flyers would also pack it in and sell off pieces at the deadline, but it didn't really happen that way.
Although the Flyers shipped off impending UFA defenseman Mark Streit, they also acquired veteran center Valtteri Filppula from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Filppula has a year left on the five-year deal he inked with the Bolts prior to the 2013-14 season, and his addition enables Philly to more properly slot two-way pivot Sean Couturier on its third line.
"They know they're desperate for wins, and they brought in a really good player in Filppula," says Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik. "Anytime your team does that, it's a signal to everybody in the room that the GM has a lot of confidence in the group and still believes that they can make the playoffs.
Coming into Saturday's game in Washington, the Flyers find themselves four points south of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. With 19 games remaining, that deficit can be overcome, but the Flyers have to hurdle over three teams to get there, and they've got the Tampa Bay Lightning nipping at their heels.
"They're going to be ultra-desperate," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen of the Flyers. "That's good preparation for us. That's going to bring the best out in us; it's going to be demanded of us. Otherwise, it's not going to be a fun. Game. We're not going to have the puck much, and we're not going to be engaged. We're going to have to be ready to go."
The Flyers are starting a crucial four-game road trip in Washington, where they suffered a 5-0 loss in their previous visit this season on Jan. 15. Facing Philadelphia will be nothing like facing New Jersey or Dallas.
"I think we know exactly what to expect out of that group," says Orpik. "It will be a completely different style than we saw [Thursday] night."
Video: Coach Trotz after Saturday's morning skate
"It will be a good game," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Philly is a traditional rival and we played them in the playoffs last year. They're right there. They're four points out right now from a playoff spot, so you're going to get their absolute, playoff mode best game. That will be a good test for you. That hardens us and gets us prepared hopefully for what's ahead.
"This is my third year here. I have not been to a game where Philly and the Caps have not been a little bit nose-to-nose. I think that's a good thing. Emotions are always going to get running a little higher, and that will be good for us."
Back In The Saddle Again - Washington earned a 4-1 win over the Flyers in Philly on Feb. 22, but the Capitals also lost a trio of key performers in that game. Niskanen missed two games before returning to the lineup in New York on Tuesday, and Orpik missed three games before returning to face the Devils on Thursday.
For the third straight game, the Caps will get another injured player back in the lineup tonight when right wing T.J. Oshie suits up to face the Flyers.
Video: Rinkside Update: T.J. Oshie 3/4/17
"I can't wait," says Oshie. "It's always hard sitting out and watching your team play. It makes it a little easier because the team is playing well and we're winning some games, but I'm definitely excited to get out there and battle with the fellas."
Oshie scored in that Feb. 22 game against the Flyers, and he was on a heater when he was sidelined with the upper body injury that kept him out of the Caps' last four games. Oshie has six goals and 11 points in his last nine games.
Although he has been on the ice practicing with his teammates since Monday, he admits he may need to be eased back in tonight against Philadelphia.
"It's mostly just the speed," says Oshie. "You can never duplicate the speed of an NHL game in practice, so that will be the small adjustment. Short shifts usually come to mind, so I'm going to need the right side to help me out there; I'll probably going to be going [off] pretty quick, at least in the first period, and then just getting those reps and getting my feet under me.
"No matter how long you play it seems like when you come back from injury, there is still just a short period of time where you need to adjust and get yourself going again. Hopefully that happens quick for me tonight, and I couldn't be more excited to get back in there."
Keep It Even - The Caps and the Flyers have each played 63 games to date this season. While Washington leads the league with 146 goals scored at five-on-five, the Flyers rank 28th in the league with just 90 five-on-five tallies, ahead of only New jersey (87) and Colorado (82).
Washington owns a plus-66 goal differential in five-on-five play this season while Philadelphia is at minus-36 in that department. In the three previous meetings between the Caps and Flyers this season, Washington has limited Philly to three even-strength goals in 185 minutes. The Flyers are 0-for-9 on the power play in those games.
"I think managing the puck," says Trotz, asked about why the Caps have had success against Philly at five-on-five. "They're a good forecheck team. You've got to come out of your end as well as you can, and then you have to make sure you have real good wall play. They're a team that puts a lot of pressure down the walls with their defense, and then you've got to contain their defense off the rush."
The Flyers have scored a grand total of 20 even-strength goals in their last 19 games, going 8-10-1 in the process.
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net for the Capitals tonight, and he is seeking to keep an impressive streak going. Holtby has earned at least a point in 20 straight starts (18-0-2), the second season in a row in which he has put together a streak of 20 or more decisions without a regulation loss. Holtby had a 20-0-2 run last season, and according to Elias Sports Bureau, he is - along with ex-Caps goalie Pete Peeters - one of only two netminders in league history to have authored two streaks of 20 or more consecutive decisions without a regulation defeat.
Holtby will be aiming for his 34th victory of the season against Philadelphia. In 19 career appearances against the Flyers, he is 7-4-7 with a 2.61 GAA and a .913 save pct.
Steve Mason will be in goal for the Flyers tonight. Mason helped lead the Flyers to their 10-game winning streak earlier in the season, but he fell out of favor when ex-Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth returned from injured reserve early in January. Mason earned eight of the victories during Philly's 10-game winning spree from Nov. 27-Dec. 14, but he has won a total of only five games since (5-9-3).
After sitting mostly idle while Neuvirth started nine of the Flyers' first 10 games of February, Mason got back in the net earlier this week, starting against and blanking the Colorado Avalanche. Two nights later, he stopped 39 of 40 shots in a 2-1 shootout win over Florida, so he comes into Saturday night's game in Washington having stopped 72 of 73 shots in his last two starts.
Lifetime against the Caps in the regular season, Mason is 9-6-2 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.82 GAA and a .904 save pct. in 18 games.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Flyers to look when they take to the ice at Verizon Center on Saturday 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, 13-Vrana
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
40-Weal, 28-Giroux, 17-Simmonds
10-Schenn, 51-Filppula, 93-Voracek
25-Cousins, 14-Couturier, 24-Read
76-VandeVelde, 78-Bellemare, 11-Konecny
3-Gudas, 15-Del Zotto
12-Raffl (lower body)