The Caps are all set to start a season-long five-game homestand at Capital One Arena, and the Los Angeles Kings are in town to supply the opposition for the homestand opener on Thursday night, the final night of November.
Washington has won seven of its last eight games on home ice, and has generally thrived at the big barn on F St. over the last couple of decades, but this homestand also brings in a murderer's row of opponents. All five opposing teams feature "plus" goal differentials thus far this season, while the Caps themselves are at minus-3 as the homestand gets underway.
The league's three stingiest teams in terms of fewest goals against per game are, in order: San Jose, Los Angeles and Columbus. All three of those teams are among the Caps' next five opponents, as is Chicago, which ranks sixth in the league in goals against per game.
"Every game is an opportunity," Caps coach Barry Trotz told the media on Wednesday. "Being at home, hopefully you want to take advantage of being at home. That's what you want, but it's got to be game-to-game. If your focus is on these next five games, I think your focus has to be on L.A. And then if you can get by L.A., your focus should be on the next game.
"It's an opportunity, but what we do with that opportunity will be based on our game-by-game focus."
The Caps are 9-4-1 when playing on exactly one day's rest this season, which they will do for the entirety of the upcoming homestand. Last season, the Caps were 36-5-3 when playing with exactly one day's rest.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | November 30
Back To Work - Washington did some great work late last week, forging a three-game winning streak while playing three games in four nights against quality opponents. In the immediate aftermath of that stretch, the Caps had the next four days off from the rigors of game action.
The Caps took Sunday and Tuesday off, and they spent Monday and Wednesday practicing.
"It's a little different here," says Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik. "You just played three [games] in four [nights] and then you come back and you get four days between games. So it's definitely a little bit different. I think that's probably why with the day off [on Sunday], we practiced the way we did [on Monday]. It was 60-65 minutes of high pace and a lot of skating, and then they threw some battle drills in there, too.
"That's not something the guys love doing in practice, but I think it's something that you know that if you're not playing games, you've got to do it in practice because it's really tough to simulate that type of battling, no matter what you're doing."
When you've won three straight and four of five, a four-day break isn't necessarily welcomed. But every team must deal with strange scheduling quirks, and the Caps tried to seek a balance between resting and working over the last four days.
"I think it's a little different than in years past," says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. "We can't view it as a vacation/rest period. We are having success lately because we've been working, and because we've been simplifying things in some areas and working through them. So we can't just take days off just to say we're healing or whatever. We've got to push through and make sure we're still instilling that work ethic that has been winning us games."
Video: Rinkside Update | Chandler Stephenson
Roster Shuffle - On Wednesday morning, the Caps waived forward Nathan Walker, who had appeared in only seven of Washington's first 25 games this season. Walker had not played in consecutive games since Oct. 7-9, and his last live action came two weeks ago, on Nov. 16 against the Avalanche in Colorado.
The 23-year-old Walker made Washington's opening night roster for the first time in his pro career, and he debuted against Montreal on Oct. 7, becoming the first Australian to reach the NHL. Walker notched his first NHL goal that night, the lone point he collected while averaging 9:11 per night in those seven games with the Caps.
"We looked at it," says Trotz, "and with people getting healthy and that, Nate wasn't getting in the lineup, so we're not doing him any favors. You only build your game on the ice. So, we're going to see if he clears waivers, and he's got to play. He's a good young man, but he's still got to build his game."
Ideally, Walker would clear waivers and report to AHL Hershey where he'd be able to play much more regularly and frequently, and would be able to play in more varied situations.
The plus side of the roster coin is that defenseman Christian Djoos has been cleared to return to the lineup after missing the last six games with an upper body injury. Djoos is expected to be in the Caps' lineup tonight against Los Angeles.
Video: Barry Trotz Pregame | November 30
Five-On-Five Alive - On an ugly two-game road trip out west earlier this month, the Caps surrendered six goals in consecutive games, and nine of the dozen goals they gave up on that journey were scored at five-on-five.
The Caps came home with their tails between their legs a bit in the aftermath of that trip, but to their credit, they've put together a strong five-game run since returning from Denver almost two weeks ago.
In winning four of its last five games, Washington has permitted just 10 goals in the process, with only six of those strikes coming at five-on-five. Four weeks ago tonight, the Capitals opened up the November position of their schedule after having endured their first losing month of hockey (5-6-1) since January of 2014.
Now, the Caps have rolled up a 9-4-0 record in November, and they're seeking to reach the double-digit win level in the season's second month for just the third time in franchise history. Their modest three-game winning streak has them at their high water point for the season at 14-10-1.
"I just think we're finding ways to win a little bit more," says Caps defenseman John Carlson. "I think we're dealing with different situations. What are we, 25 games into it now? The new guys have seen how we play, and they've adapted themselves. The young guys have seen a bunch of teams now, and they feel more comfortable.
"I think we've still got a long ways to go with our evolution. But I think we've started getting to that special feeling in the locker room when you're playing and knowing that you're going to win. That's what you want to feel all of the time, and I think we're starting to get to that point. We've got a ways to go with that, but it's good to get some traction. The division is pretty crazy right now, and we're just sticking in the fight and trying to get better through it. That's the goal."
Gaborik Back - Los Angeles recently got veteran winger Marian Gaborik back in its lineup. A knee injury kept Gaborik out for the Kings' first 22 games this season, and he has played in the last three games, picking up a pair of assists.
The 35-year-old Czech native may not be the game-breaking threat he once was, but he is inching close to a couple of key milestones, and just reached another.
Gaborik is only eight games shy of 1,000 for his NHL career, and he is four goals away from 400. In the Kings' most recent game on Tuesday against the Red Wings in Detroit, Gaborik notched the 400th assist of his career.
The third player chosen overall in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, Gaborik was the centerpiece of the expansion Minnesota Wild for the first eight seasons of its existence. Gaborik rolled up 30 or more goals in five of his first seven seasons with the Wild, and he reached 42 in his best season in Minnesota.
Now in his 17th NHL season, Gaborik has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. He has played in as many as 80 games only twice in those 17 campaigns. With better health, Gaborik might be closing in on 500 rather than 400 goals by now. In his last season with the Wild (2008-09), he put up 13 goals in just 17 games, a season marred by surgeries on his back and on his hip.
Gaborik scored more than 40 goals in two of the next three seasons - he was with the New York Rangers in those years - but has been in slow decline since moving on to Columbus late in the '12-13 season. He arrived in Los Angeles just in time to be part of the Kings' 2013-14 Stanley Cup championship team. Gaborik is under contract for three more seasons beyond this one at a salary cap hit of $4.875 million per season.
In The Nets - Holtby gets the net for the Caps tonight against the Kings, and he will be seeking his 14th victory of the season. He has won nine of his last 11 starts (9-2-0), posting a 2.41 GAA and a .926 save pct. in the process. Holtby has permitted two or fewer goals against in eight of those last 11 starts.
Lifetime against Los Angeles, Holtby is 1-1-1 in three appearances with a shutout, a 2.33 GAA and a .920 save pct.
Jonathan Quick gets the net for the Kings on Thursday. Quick has won two straight starts and is seeking his 12th win of the season in Washington. He has permitted two goals or fewer in five of his last seven starts.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Quick is 7-2-0 in nine appearances with a 2.39 GAA and a .915 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and the Kings to look for Washington's Thursday night's homestand opener at Capital One Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
91-Graovac, 20-Eller, 25-Smith-Pelly
18-Stephenson, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
65-Burakovsky (upper body, week-to-week)
19-Iafallo, 11-Kopitar, 23-Brown
70-Pearson, 21-Shore, 73-Toffoli
12-Gaborik, 9-Kempe, 22-Lewis
26-Dowd, 36-Jokinen, 17-Brodzinski
13-Clifford (upper body)
71-Mitchell (visa issues)