With 10 games left and only two points separating the Capitals, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets atop the Metropolitan Division - and indeed, atop the NHL - standings, Thursday night's meeting between the Capitals and the Blue Jackets officially qualifies as a Big Tilt.
Two days ago, the Caps and the Blue Jackets were in a flat-footed tie for the top spot in the Metro Division (and the Presidents' Trophy), and if Columbus is able to earn a regulation win in the District tonight, the two clubs will be all even once again.
Washington and Columbus have two head-to-head games remaining, and those two contests could be critical in determining who ends up on the top of the Metro heap at close of business on April 9, when the NHL's 82-game regular season marathon comes to a close. The two remaining games between Washington and Columbus are obviously important from a standings perspective, but also from a potential tiebreaker perspective.
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Washington owns a one-point lead over Pittsburgh and a two-point lead over the Jackets as play begins on Thursday, and each team has 10 games remaining. The Caps own one more regulation/overtime win than the Jackets, and the Caps lead the Pens by three in that regard. Highest number of regulation/overtime wins is the first tie-breaker, after point totals.
In the event of a tie in both points and regulation/overtime wins, the next step in breaking the tie would be points gained in head-to-head play, with a bit of a twist.
"The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included. If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any "odd" games, shall be used to determine the standing."
Okay, pay attention now. The Caps and Jackets will play five games against one another this season, including three in Washington. So, by the above rule, the first of those three games in Washington is not included, it's thrown out. That benefits the Caps, because the Jackets won that game, 3-2 back on Nov. 20. In the other two games the two teams have played so far this season, the Caps have claimed a total of three points to the Jackets' two.
So, a Washington win in regulation in either of the two games remaining between the Caps and Jackets this season would ensure that the Caps would win that third tie-breaker, should it come down to it. And it certainly could, given that the two clubs were all even in regulation/overtime wins just two days ago.
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"I'm not sure how many guys know about it," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, of the NHL's tie-breaking rules, "but I just looked it up the other day, just for my own sake of knowing where we're at and stuff. I think short-term, you just worry about playing the game. If it gets down to the last game or two, then you might need to look at the playoff scenarios and see if you might need to win one in regulation or overtime or whatnot. But as far as chatter around the room, I'm not sure guys talk about it that much."
Four-Line Overdrive - Both the Caps and the Jackets boast four strong lines and a good group of defensemen capable of jumping up and contributing to the attack. One of the major improvements in the Capitals this season has been the offensive contribution the team has had from its bottom six forwards, as four of Washington's bottom six forwards have reached double-digit goal totals on the season.
Columbus does not conduct morning skates, and there is no certainty yet as to how the Jackets' lineup will shake out for tonight's game. But Columbus also has some dangerous offensive players in its bottom six. What will be interesting to see in tonight's game is whether either coach opts to try to match up certain lines against others, or whether both just roll four.
Video: Ovechkin, Wilson and Orpik on matchup with Columbus
"When we're playing all four lines and rolling after them," says Caps center Jay Beagle, "there is something to be said when you go after a team and you just keep coming at them in waves. And you keep just rolling over the lines and they are adjusting to you instead of you adjusting to them. And with the depth that we have, that's what I feel like we can do.
"We can go out and play and let other teams adjust to us instead of us always having to match up and thinking, 'We can't have this line against this line because that line would dominate this line.' There is no feeling of that. From our standpoint, we would love to play against the top lines. [Nicklas Backstrom] wants to play against the top lines, too. So does [Evgeny Kuznetsov] and so does Lars [Eller]. So it's pretty awesome that coach can really go to any of our lines and be like, 'This is your match-up, this is your role, and let's go tonight,' and have all of us take charge of it.
"Any one of our lines who gets that role and that opportunity is going to be hungry for it and is going to thrive on it. That makes for a deep team. There is a lot to be said for the way Mac put this team together. We know this is the year and that we have to do something special in the playoffs, and we're looking forward to it."
In The Nets - With a modest two-game winning streak in his pocket and his 300th NHL game in the rear view, Braden Holtby takes the crease for the Caps again on Thursday against Columbus. He blanked the Jackets here on Jan. 5 in his most recent start against them, stopping 29 shots on the night.
Holtby has 37 victories on the season and is three wins shy of becoming just the third goaltender in NHL history to string together as many as three straight 40-win campaigns.
Lifetime against Columbus, Holtby is 9-3-2 with the aforementioned shutout, a 2.64 GAA and a .907 save pct.
Columbus went with Joonas Korpisalo on Wednesday night in its home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, saving tonight's game for Sergei Bobrovsky, who is in the midst of a serious heater right now. In addition to leading the NHL in wins (39), GAA (2.04) and save pct. (.931) on the season, Bobrovsky has been absolutely brilliant in the month of March.
Bobrovsky has won all seven of his starts this month (7-0-0), and he has permitted just eight goals in the process. He has three shutouts this month, and also features a 1.14 GAA and a .963 save pct. in March.
Bobrovsky makes his 57th start of the season on Thursday in Washington, matching his single-season career high, set in 2013-14.
All Lined Up - The Caps and the Columbus Blue Jackets do battle on Thursday night in the District, and here's how we expect Caps to look when they take the ice for that all important contest. As for the Jackets, it's merely an uneducated guess, because they do not conduct morning skates:
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, 89-Gagner, 13-Atkinson
71-Foligno, 10-Wennberg, 43-Hartnell
38-Jenner, 17-Dubinsky, 34-Anderson
45-Sedlak, 25-Karlsson, 11-Calvert