With the four-day All-Star break in the rear view mirror, it's time for the Caps to go back to work. They finished the pre-break portion of the schedule in the New York metropolitan area, taking a 5-2 win from the New Jersey Devils in Newark last Thursday night. They'll head right back to the same neck of the woods on Tuesday, this time taking on the New York Islanders in Brooklyn.
The Caps were on a 13-1-1 roll going into the break, and now they'll try to pick up where they left off against a resurgent Islanders team that has gone 5-0-1 in its last six games, and 5-0-1 since Doug Weight was appointed interim head coach, replacing Jack Capuano.
Video: Coach Trotz talks before Tuesday's #CapsIsles matchup
"I think they're playing with a different attitude," says Caps coach Barry Trotz of the Islanders. "I think there are some subtle changes in their game that they've made with Dougie there. But for the most part, they're recommitted, they're refocused and they're playing really good hockey.
"I think they're a little more aggressive in the [defensive] zone in terms of closing time and space on you. I think they're playing rushes a little bit earlier and they're using the middle of the ice more with their center ice men. Those are just some of the things that - when you're watching three or four games of theirs - are little trends that maybe you didn't see quite as much before, and you know where the emphasis is coming [from]."
Even Strength - The Capitals are tied for the league lead (with Pittsburgh) with 112 five-on-five goals this season. Washington finished last season with 166 five-on-five goals, just one shy of Dallas for the top spot in the league in that department.
The Islanders' total of 103 five-on-five goals ranks six in the league, and five Metropolitan Division teams occupy the top six spots in the NHL in that category. Minnesota is third; the Wild are the only non-Metro team in the top six.
Washington has surrendered the fewest number (62) of five-on-five goals this season, giving it the league's best five-on-five goal differential at plus-50, an impressive mark for just 49 games.
Only two other Metro teams rank in the top half of the circuit in five-on-five goals against. The Columbus Blue Jackets are tied for seventh with 81 and the Penguins are tied for 14th with 89.
"We worked a lot of stuff early in the year on making sure our five-on-five play was better," notes Trotz. "We started from the defensive end; we felt we could generate more if we protected better and protected with more detail. I think it showed as we moved up the ice.
"We've stayed with it for the most part. The last little while, it has slipped a little bit; I think we just haven't had enough practice time because of the number of games. But the offensive part took a little while to get going and then once it did, you saw the difference between the offense and the defense start to get wider and wider.
"When you play good defense, you can always be in the game even if you're not at your best. That's why we started there. We knew the offensive part would come just because of the depth of our hockey club and the talent that we have up front."
Video: Rinkside Update: Andre Burakovsky 1/31/17
Coming Up - With the AHL Hershey Bears on their All-Star break until Friday, the Capitals recalled a pair of Bears on Monday, ahead of their trip to Brooklyn for Tuesday's game against the Islanders. Center Chandler Stephenson and defenseman Christian Djoos came up to join the Caps on this quick road trip, though neither will play on Tuesday against the Isles. The Capitals made the recalls to ensure they would have extra players on hand in the event of an injury or illness during Hershey's break, when Bears players may be scattered far and wide.
Stephenson has been up twice previously this season, and he appeared in each of Washington's two games leading into the break, playing well in both instances. For the 22-year-old Djoos, this is his first recall to the NHL and it comes midway through his second season as a pro.
"The biggest thing with Christian is an exceptional IQ, poise and all that," says Trotz. "The only areas that he was maybe a little deficient in is that he is not a big guy. So strength and the ability to not wear down over a long season were things that we asked him to continue do. And that's more about workout and nutrition, and all those things. He fractured his jaw, so he's had to deal with a lot of stuff in keeping his strength and weight up, and he's been exceptional down there. He's been probably one of their most consistent guys; him and [Aaron] Ness and [Tyler] Lewington. Those three guys, their names come up all the time when it comes to the [defense] corps down there. Obviously [Madison] Bowey is hurt, so those guys have really carried a big workload.
"It's great he gets to come up, and we get a chance to see him, and it's a little bit of a reward for good play. And that's what we've been trying to do with some of our players that we feel that can play [at the NHL level] but also reward them for good play. Nathan Walker was a name that we were thinking about bringing up, but he got hurt this weekend so he'll be eliminated for a little bit. And [there is also] Travis Boyd. So there have been a lot of guys that we are really happy with, that we feel are going to play for us. All that being said, we try to take these opportunities - even when we're pretty healthy - to bring up guys and take a peek at them, even if they're not playing."
Video: Julian Coltre with this week's Amtrak On Track
In The Nets - With tonight's game kicking off a set of back-to-back games - the Caps return home to host the Bruins on Wednesday - Philipp Grubauer will get the nod in net tonight in Brooklyn.
Grubauer is aiming for his 10th win of the season, which would be a single-season career best. He is 9-2-2 on the season with a 2.13 GAA and a .924 save pct. Grubauer made the first NHL start of his career against the Islanders on March 9, 2013, making 40 saves in a 5-3 Washington loss. That remains his only regular season action against the Isles in his NHL career.
The Islanders will go with Thomas Greiss in goal on Tuesday, giving us the NHL rarity of two German-born goaltenders going head-to-head.
For the first three months of the season, the Isles stubbornly carried three goaltenders on their active roster. Not surprisingly, the stratagem went the same way it went for every other team that has tried it over the years; it didn't work. Since jettisoning Jaroslav Halak to AHL Bridgeport earlier this month, New York's goaltending situation has stabilized.
Greiss has been excellent since the beginning of December, posting a 9-3-3 mark over that span. He has a pair of shutouts, a 2.13 GAA and a .933 save pct. over that span.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and Islanders to look when they take to the ice on Tuesday at Barclays Center:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
New York Islanders
27-Lee, 91-Tavares, 12-Bailey
72-Beauvillier, 29-Nelson, 18-Strome
16-Ladd, 10-Quine, 25-Chimera
86-Kulemin, 53-Cizikas, 11-Prince
44-de Haan, 4-Seidenberg
3-Hamonic (lower body)
14-Hickey (lower body)
15-Clutterbuck (lower body)