Thursday night's homestand finale at Verizon Center should be a barnburner. At 10-2-2 in their last 14 games, the Capitals would certainly qualify as one of the hottest in the circuit. But the Columbus Blue Jackets carry a 16-game winning streak into town on Thursday.
The Jackets aren't just the hottest team in the NHL for more than the last month, they now own the longest winning spree in the last two-plus decades, and the second-longest winning streak in league history. On Thursday at Verizon Center, the Jackets will attempt to match the all-time league standard of 17 straight victories, established from March 10-April 9, 1993 by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Although they've played at a 118-point pace (10-3-3) during the life of the Blue Jackets' impressive winning streak, the Capitals have lost ground to Columbus over that span, and they now trail the Metro Division front-runners by seven points. Columbus also holds a game in hand.
For Washington, Thursday's game is much more about gaining ground than breaking the Jackets' winning streak. The Caps have a modest three-game winning streak of their own, and it took a terrific three-goal outburst in the third period of their last game against Toronto to extend that streak to three.
Video: Rinkside Update: Brett Connolly 1/5/17
"Any chance you get to play a division game, you take it seriously," says Caps winger Brett Connolly. "These are big points. If we can get a regulation win, obviously it's good for us moving forward.
"We just want to keep building on what we've been doing lately. We came up with an emotional win against Toronto, and showed a little bit of resiliency in coming back. Hopefully we can pick up where we left off in the third. I thought that period we played was one of our best periods in a while. That's what we're going to need moving forward. We've just got to come at teams, and we've got to skate and we've got to forecheck. If we can do that, we'll be fine."
Columbus won both prior meetings between the two teams this season, earning a 2-1 overtime win over Washington in Ohio on Nov. 15 and taking a 3-2 win here in the District five days later. In the second of those two games, the Caps were playing without T.J. Oshie, who suffered an upper body injury against Detroit in Washington's previous game.
The Caps believe their overall game is in a better place now than it was in late November.
"I think we are," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Osh is a valuable guy to us in so many areas. I think we're in a better place and we have a little rhythm to our game, just because the schedule forces us to have some rhythm. Our team seems to relish the rhythm of the season. Sometimes we call it 'Groundhog's Day,' but they seem to - when they get some good rhythm - play better and more consistently."
Video: Trotz talks before #CapsJackets
Each of Washington's last five losses has come by a single goal, and three of them occurred in the shootout. The Caps' last loss by more than a goal was a 3-0 setback at the hands of the Islanders on Dec. 1, and that was a 0-0 game going into the third period.
"I think some games, we've played very well," says Caps center Lars Eller. "And I think in some games, we didn't quite get to the level where we can get to, but we still found a way to win games. And there were some games we lost in a shootout that we may have let slip through our hands a little bit. But that just speaks to how high expectations this team has.
"The difference between winning and losing at times is very, very small. But it's good that we have the attitude that we're never satisfied with losing. Yeah, we're 10-2-2 in our last 14 games. It's pretty good. We've done a lot of good things, but we're not satisfied."
Power Brokers - Columbus features the league's No. 1 power play at 28.3% on the season. Ironically enough, the Jackets are exactly 28.3% on the power play (15-for-53) during the life of their current streak, too. The Jackets have authored eight multiple power-play goal games this season, and five of them have come during the team's current winning streak.
Last season, the Jackets were the first team to dent the Caps' penalty killers for more than one goal in a single game. They did so in a Jan. 2 game at Columbus, in Washington's 38th game of the season.
The Caps suffered that ignominy just twice that season, and they've permitted more than one power-play goal in a game just four times in their last 122 regular season games, but Columbus has accounted for two of those four. The Jackets were the first team to score multiple power-play goals against Washington this season, too, going 2-for-3 with the extra man on Nov. 20 here at Verizon Center, in the Caps' 18th game of the season.
For Washington, the best play is to stay out of the box. The Caps have faced at least four shorthanded situations in five straight games, their most undisciplined streak of games in more than two years. In the last three games, the Caps have been shorthanded 19 times while getting only eight power plays of their own.
"We've got to clean up a couple of things," says Trotz. "Obviously the penalties are mounting up, and those are hard minutes. We're going to correct that."
Killing And Scoring - Washington's streak of 29 straight successful penalty killing missions came to a halt on Tuesday when the Leafs scored a pair of power-play goals, but the Caps continued their run of scoring even-strength goals in the immediate aftermath of successful kills.
On Saturday in New Jersey, the Caps were 9-for-9 on the kill in a 6-2 win over the Devils as they became the first NHL team in more than 16 years to kill at least nine penalties in a game while scoring six or more even-strength goals.
In the second period of that game, Oshie scored just 44 seconds after the Caps finished off a penalty kill. The next night, back in D.C., Karl Alzner scored a goal against Ottawa that came seven seconds after Nicklas Backstrom exited the penalty box. And on Tuesday against Toronto, Oshie scored 10 seconds after Washington finished a successful penalty kill.
"When you see guys out there blocking shot or goalies making a great save, those aren't really highlight reel plays that you see on the news," says Oshie. "Those are plays that those guys are doing and getting bruises and sometimes worse just for the team, just to keep the puck out of the net. It lifts you up; you get excited when those guys do that.
Video: Oshie on 'break the streak' storyline regarding CBJ
"I've been killing for the last 30 or so seconds, or the last 15 seconds, and when a PK does that good of a job, typically the power play out there is tired. They've been out there for a while, they're tired and they've been working on their breakout. And you get a turnover, I come out and I'm fresh and the guy steps out of the box and we find a way to get down the ice. Momentum definitely carries over on special teams on both sides of the puck."
Offense From The Defense - Defensemen have contributed two goals to Washington's attack in each of the team's last two games. Caps blueliners have been contributing to the attack steadily throughout the season, but that contribution has been more prolific of late.
Caps defensemen have totaled 39 points (nine goals, 30 assists) in the team's last 14 games, and 79 points (12 goals, 67 assists) in 37 games on the season.
"I think we've talked a lot about ways we can get more involved, and the ways the forwards can help us out," says Washington defenseman John Carlson. "I think they've been doing a great job. That's what you see, a lot more screens and net presence and commotion. It makes it a lot tough for the goalies, and it makes us look better. So that's always nice."
Video: Rinkside Update: John Carlson 1/4/17
In The Nets - Two nights after he was pulled from the net after the first period - the first time he didn't finish what he started this season - Caps goalie Braden Holtby gets the net back tonight against Columbus. Even after allowing three goals on eight shots in 20 minutes of work against the Maple Leafs, Holtby is still 6-2-3 with a 1.82 GAA and a .935 save pct. in his last dozen starts.
Lifetime against the Jackets, Holtby is 8-3-2 with a 2.83 GAA and a .900 save pct.
Sergei Bobrovsky gets the start for Columbus. Winner of 14 of the 16 games in the Blue Jackets' current streak, Bobrovsky has a 1.64 GAA and a .941 save pct. during the life of the winning streak.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Bobrovsky is 6-5-3 with a 2.98 GAA and a .905 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect both sides to look when they take to the Verizon Center ice on Thursday night:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
20-Saad, 10-Wennberg, 71-Foligno
38-Jenner, 17-Dubinsky, 13-Atkinson
43-Hartnell, 45-Sedlak, 89-Gagner
11-Calvert, 25-Karlsson, 34-Anderson
27-Murray, 65 Nutivaara