One week from today, the NHL's 2016-17 regular season comes to an end. Three of the league's top four teams reside in the Metropolitan Division, where the top spot is still up for grabs from among Washington (110 points), Columbus (106) and Pittsburgh (105).
On Sunday night in Columbus, the Blue Jackets host the Capitals in a game that should help determine who ultimately comes out on top of the Metropolitan Division standings. It's the fifth and final meeting between the two Metro rivals this season, and it turns out to be the rubber match as well; each team has won twice, and each team has needed more than 60 minutes to earn one of those victories..
Video: Vogel and Walton preview #CapsJackets
The fourth of those five meetings came fairly recently, 10 days ago in Washington. The Caps prevailed 2-1 in a shootout in that contest. The Capitals might have fallen to third place with a regulation loss that night, but instead they own a four-point lead with five games to go. A win tonight puts them firmly in the driver's seat while a Columbus win would make it a race over the final four games of the campaign.
"It's going to be good I think, for both teams," says Caps forward Brett Connolly. "It's going to be a playoff atmosphere and it's going to be one of those fun games to play in. We're ready and we know that they'll be ready. It's a big game for both teams, fighting for position, and it should be a good test. We're looking to recover from our last loss and move on. We're looking forward to it."
Video: Connolly talks with Vogel about #CapsJackets
Although both teams are coming into tonight's game off losses in their last outing, both are also coming in hot. The Caps are 7-2-1 in their last 10 contests and the Jackets are 6-2-2 over their last 10.
Different Kind Of Foe - Three of the Caps' previous four games were played against teams whose playoff hopes have long vanished, and that can to produce a different type of game with perhaps more freewheeling and freelancing and less structure.
The Caps have surrendered 13 goals in their last three games, including 10 at five-on-five. Shoring up that area of their game would seem to be of primary importance to Washington; it's what's helped them the most this season as they vie for a second straight Metro Division crown.
Video: Barry Trotz on tonight's matchup against Columbus
Facing Columbus tonight, the Caps have a much more formidable foe, but also a more familiar and predictable one. Still, the Caps know they need to button down a bit at even strength.
"It's just details," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "Throughout our whole group - myself and everyone - it's just simple things that we're getting beat on that are uncharacteristic of us. But we know we can do that. We know it's not a matter of if we can do it, it's just going out and executing it.
"I think tonight is a good thing for us, coming off a tough one in Arizona and playing a really good team. I think it will help us be mentally sharper in those areas. But coming in, we knew these two [late season] games against Columbus would be big, and it's going to be fun."
Video: Ovechkin on tonight's big game vs. Columbus
Ships Passing In The Night - The power plays of the Caps and Blue Jackets have gone in the opposite directions over the last half of the season. When the two clubs met in Washington on Jan. 5, the Jackets led the league with a 28.3% power play success rate while the Capitals were 17th in the circuit at 17.2%.
Coming into tonight's game, the Capitals rank third in the league with a 23.6% power play success rate, while Columbus stands tied for 10th at 20.1%.
Since that Jan. 5 meeting in the District, Washington has clicked at a 29.9% rate with the extra man, the best mark in the league over that span. Conversely, Columbus is at 11.2% over the same stretch, the worst mark in the league.
In The Nets - For the Capitals, Holtby will be seeking to bounce back from a tough night in the nets in Arizona on Friday where he surrendered six goals on 25 shots in roughly 54 minutes of work. Pulled with just over six minutes remaining in the first period after allowing three goals on 15 shots, Holtby was reinstalled at the start of the second and finished up. He permitted six goals in a game for the first time in more than four years, since Feb. 3, 2013.
Holtby earned his 40th win of the season in the first game of the current road trip, back on Tuesday night in St. Paul against the Wild. Lifetime against the Jackets, he is 10-3-2 with a shutout, a 2.52 GAA and a .911 save pct. in 16 appearances.
Video: Holtby talks about tonight's game vs. Columbus
At the other end of the ice, Sergei Bobrovsky gets the net for Columbus. The odds-on favorite for the Vezina Trophy, Bobrovsky is also likely to garnish some serious Hart Trophy consideration. He was named the NHL's No. 2 star for the month of March, and it's hard to believe he wasn't the first star when you look at his numbers for the month.
Bobrovsky was 9-1-1 last month with four shutouts, a 1.09 GAA and a .967 save pct. He also had two shutout streaks of more than 100 minutes in duration. Columbus comes into tonight's game having scored just seven goals in its last five games, but having earned points in four of them (2-1-2) and Bobrovsky is the main reason the Jackets have been able to continue to pull points when the offense goes dry.
Lifetime against the Capitals, he is 6-6-4 with a 3.02 GAA and a .906 save pct. in 17 appearances.
All Lined Up - The Caps move into the back portion of their five-game road trip on Sunday when they face the Blue Jackets in Columbus. Here's how we expect the Caps to look and a glance at how the Blue Jackets might line up as well:
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, 89-Gagner, 29-Korpikoski
11-Calvert, 25-Karlsson, 34-Anderson
28-Bjorkstrand (upper body)
45-Sedlak (upper body)