The Caps are in Philadelphia on Wednesday night, taking on the Flyers in a Rivalry Night game for the second time this season. The Caps faced the Flyers here on Dec. 21 in a Rivalry Night game, and tonight's game is the sixth of seven Rivalry Night appearances for Washington this season; the Caps will face the New York Rangers in a Rivalry Night contest at Verizon Center in the season's final week.
There is obviously a geographic element to the Washington-Philadelphia rivalry, and the two teams have been in the same division for the last few seasons, too. But the rivalry got bumped up a notch last spring when the Capitals and Flyers went head-to-head in the first round of the playoffs.
Video: Tom Wilson on shutting down the Flyers' power play
"That rivalry is always there, ever since I came into the league," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. "It seemed like my first year there were three or four line brawls where every guy on the ice was fighting and that was kind of the base for it. And then you have two good teams competing in a division every year, and we end up playing them in the playoffs. We eliminate them, and it's obviously a bitter taste for them.
"We're always ready to come into this building. It's a pretty hostile building with lots of emotion and it's definitely a fun building to play in and a fun building to get the win at the end of the night."
Washington took a 3-0 lead in the playoff series last spring, then lost the next two games before finally eliminating the Flyers with a 1-0 win in Game 6.
"I think it was just the way the playoffs went," says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. "Obviously that one game [Game 3] was a little bit crazy, so that's something that's going to stick with you and I imagine it's not just one game where you get redemption from that; it's something you want to continue to try and beat that team and get that little sour taste away.
Video: Alzner talks #CapsFlyers after practice
"It's now one of the teams where I think, 'Okay, this is a really big deal. You have to be at the top of your game." Whereas before, it was a team that you still wanted to play good against, but you didn't have that underlying - I don't want to say 'hatred' but - 'almost hatred.' That's kind of where at least I feel about that team."
For a couple of decades, the two teams weren't even in the same division, but that changed with the formation of the Metropolitan Division in 2013-14. Washington has won six of the 15 (6-4-5) regular season games between the two teams since.
"They're a team that always likes to get up for us, for sure," says Caps center Jay Beagle. "It's always a rivalry and a hard fought game. You look at their lineup and they have a good team no matter what is going on in their season. I know they get up for us and always make it difficult on us, and they have some of their best games against us."
Video: Eller on playing in his 500th NHL game
Fixing The Firsts - The Capitals came off their five-day bye week and played a weekend set of back-to-back games in Detroit and New York on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, dropping both contests. Tonight, the Caps are aiming to avoid their first three-game slide in more than two months, since they dropped three straight (0-2-1) from Nov. 26-Dec. 3.
Both of the Caps' weekend setbacks came by the margin of a single goal, and they scraped a point out of the loss in Detroit, falling in the shootout. When it's all said and done, the Caps look back at those games knowing that if they'd played better in the first 20 minutes of both contests, they might have won both. Washington was more than fine at both ends of the ice after the first frame in both games.
"Obviously the first period in Detroit and in New York were garbage compared to our standards," says Beagle. "We left poor [goaltender Philipp Grubauer] there to hang in the first in New York. I think we played a little bit better in the first in Detroit and didn't give up as many two- and three-on-ones, but we still left [goaltender Braden Holtby] hanging in the first in Detroit.
"You can make all the excuses you want as a player, but it's tough mentally just to come back from a break and to have an afternoon game. We needed to be able to find more and to just find our game in the first period. I think that would have changed those games a lot, if we just didn't have those first periods where we gave up so many opportunities and were chasing the puck the whole period."
Twenty-nine of the 53 shots on net and two of the four goals Washington surrendered in the two games over the weekend came in the first period. The Caps went without a first-period goal of their own in consecutive games for the first time in more than two months.
Video: Trotz talks before Wednesday's #CapsFlyers tilt
"I'd like to see a better first period from us than the last two games," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "The other four periods of the last two games, I actually didn't mind. Our game kept ramping up and I think we limited chances and got some scoring chances. So we'd like to fix the first period up for us from the last two games, and [to add] a little more snipe. Our shooting percentage went down the last couple of games, but hopefully with more touches and more time and more practice time, we'll be able to get this corrected."
Keeping It Even - The Caps lead the NHL with 136 five-on-five goals while the Flyers are foundering in that department; they're in 28th place in the league with 87 five-on-five tallies.
Philadelphia has had issues with scoring of late, failing to score more than three goals in 15 straight games and managing just 16 even-strength goals during that stretch.
Given that the Flyers' power play outfit is a top 10 unit in the league, the Caps would clearly like to play as much five-on-five hockey as possible tonight.
"Their power play is a big key for us tonight," says Trotz. "Obviously they have had their struggles with the five-on-five scoring, so let's not make it easier on them. Let's move our feet and let's make them check us, and play a real sound game."
As good as the Caps have been this season at five-on-five, Philadelphia will likely also want to stay out of the box tonight. Washington's power play is 18-for-52 (34.6%) in its last 19 games.
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net for Washington on Wednesday in Philly. Holtby will be taking his second crack at earning his 30th win of the season; he suffered a shootout loss at the hands of the Red Wings in Detroit on Saturday in his previous bid. That loss to the Wings was Holtby's first in calendar 2017; he had a string of 14 straight victories before getting tagged with that loss.
Holtby has won only six of 18 career regular season appearances against the Flyers, going 6-4-7 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.71 GAA and a .910 save pct.
At the other end of the ice will be old friend Michal Neuvirth, who gets the start for the Flyers. Originally a Washington draft choice in 2006, Neuvirth played for the Caps until the trade deadline in 2014 when he was moved to Buffalo. He has also toiled for the Islanders and Flyers since departing the District.
Neuvirth is 10-7-1 on the season with a 2.78 GAA and an .890 save pct. He was sidelined for six weeks with a lower body injury, and has been better since coming back. He is 6-5-1 with a 2.30 GAA and a .909 save pct. in 13 starts since coming off injured reserve.
Lifetime against his former Caps mates in the regular season, Neuvirth is 1-0 with a 2.44 GAA and a .914 save pct. in just two career appearances.
All Lined Up - Here is how we expect the Capitals and the Flyers to look when they take to the ice at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night.
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 82-Sanford
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
10-Schenn, 28-Giroux, 17-Simmonds
22-Weise, 14-Couturier, 93-Voracek
12-Raffl, 25-Cousins, 24-Read
76-VandeVelde, 78-Bellemare, 13-Lyubimov
3-Gudas, 15-Del Zotto
11-Konecny (lower body)
40-Weal (upper body)