The Caps start a two-game road trip against Western Conference opponents on Tuesday night in Nashville against the Predators. The game pits a pair of teams that are going pretty well at the moment; the Caps have won five of their last six games while the Predators are the winners of four straight.
After an uneven start to the season, the Caps have improved their lot in life - and in the Metropolitan Division standings - by winning six of their last eight games and tightening up in their own end of the ice. The schedule was a mess for the Caps early in the season, but it's more favorable in the days and weeks just ahead on the horizon.
"I think the next month is about continuing the process that we're focused on," says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby, "and not worrying too much about the standings or even the recent success that we're having. We still want to use this first half of the season to build as much as we can, and not focus as much on results. We're just focused on what we're doing every night to build our team.
"I think that's why we've been having success lately. We've been just finding things that work. Every line is finding that chemistry; they're not worried about points or statistics, they're just worrying about playing the game they need to play for us to be successful. Defensively, we're getting more comfortable with each other. That has a lot to do with a successful [defensive] corps, the tendencies and communication. We've just been working so hard at that, that we have eliminated extra thoughts about having success. We're just focused on our games."
Video: Two-Man Advantage | November 14
And Then There Was One - Heading into last Friday's home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Caps had four players on their list of injured. Two games later, they'll go into Tuesday's tilt against the Predators with just one player on that list.
Winger Brett Connolly came back into the lineup on Sunday against Edmonton, after missing seven games with an upper body injury. Tuesday morning brought the news that Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen would be activated for the game against the Preds; he missed the last 13 games while recovering from an upper body injury.
"I'm excited to be back," says Niskanen. "It's not the best situation to be away from the team. I'm excited to get back in there tonight and see what I can do."
Video: Matt Niskanen Pregame | November 14
We also learned on Tuesday that forward Tyler Graovac, who is also recovering from an upper body injury, is being assigned to the AHL Hershey Bears on a long-term conditioning loan. Graovac has been sidelined with an upper body injury sustained in an Oct. 17 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"You can skate laps until you're blue in the face - day-in and day out - and you can battle," says Caps coach Barry Trotz, in regards to Graovac, "but you've got to get into games. And what I've found out with shoulder injuries over the years is that you get bumped around, and you don't trust it. So he is going down there. He's got to 'strength up.' The first game, you're going to be a little bit tentative. It's no different than having a knee injury; you're sort of tentative. You get through that first game, and then you get your confidence back.
"So those are the two things. We want him to get his confidence back. We want him to get some of his game skills back. And then when we feel comfortable that he's ready to go, I want him to be able to jump into our lineup and be able to prove what he can do, rather than have him be in the lineup and not be complete as a player."
That leaves only winger Andre Burakovsky (upper body) on Washington's list of ailing. Burakovsky is still a few weeks away from returning.
Niskanen's return should ease what has been a heavy workload for John Carlson and Brooks Orpik, who have been logging well over 20 minutes a night for the last month or so.
For the last several seasons, Niskanen has been a virtual iron man, playing in all situations and rarely missing a game. His one-month absence from the Washington lineup is the most time he has ever missed consecutively.
"Never," responds Niskanen, when asked about the last time he missed as much as a month of action. "That's the first time in my pro career. I think I missed three weeks one time with a cut on my hand, my palm. But that's been my longest one. I've been pretty fortunate."
Things have changed in Niskanen's career since he missed three weeks with that palm laceration.
"My role within the team was significantly different back then," says Niskanen. "So it's not entirely the same situation. But I think anytime you miss some time - even after the All-Star break or anything like that - it sounds [like a] cliché, but simple is effective. At least for your first couple of shifts, you want to get through them and get involved in the game, but maybe less eventful is better.
"So I'll try to play really simple and keep the game moving along until I get my feet a little and get my timing back, and try to have a positive impact on the game."
Video: Rinkside Update | Brooks Orpik
The Kids Are All Right - Niskanen's absence was a tough early season blow for the Capitals, but they survived it. They went a respectable 7-6-0 while he was out, and they were able to break in a pair of young blueliners in Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey. Both of those rookie defenders have played well in their first month as NHL regulars.
"They have experience," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "They're used to playing in the NHL. Right now, they know the league, they know the speed and they know the game. You see how Djoos is playing right now, he's been pretty solid. Especially when he has the puck in the offensive zone, he can create chances for us."
Niskanen's return should help solidify the Washington defense, but Djoos and Bowey's ongong development and continued growth is a significant positive development in the first quarter of the Caps' 2017-18 season.
"I think it's a huge positive that neither of them have lost any confidence," says Niskanen of the Caps' two rookie blueliners. "Like any young player at any position - especially a defenseman, though - you're going to have some hiccups. It takes time to get a feel for what you can and can't do in the league - areas of the ice that are open, where areas of focus are to kind of move the game along.
"They've had a couple of bumps in the road, but if you look at where they were a month ago to now, there has been tremendous growth and they kept their confidence all along. That's what you like to see in a young player, that they keep trying to do the right things and make plays and not be afraid to be out there. Neither of them are afraid to make a mistake, but they're getting smarter too with experiences, the more reps they get. That's encouraging."
Finally, a doff of the chapeau to defenseman Taylor Chorney, who filled in ably and capably in Niskanen's absence. Chorney will be a healthy scratch now that Niskanen has returned, but the affable and popular Chorney was quietly solid over the Caps' recent stretch of games.
Playing mostly on his offside, Chorney was on the ice for just one even-strength goal against in Washington's last 11 games.
"You're not going to find a better teammate in the league," says Orpik of Chorney. "He comes in and works his tail off every day. Obviously you want to play every game, but if you watch him and just his attitude, it's tough to tell if he is in or out of the lineup. He has the same positive attitude and is supporting guys whether he is playing or not.
"Sometimes, it's just a numbers game. Sometimes a guy that is playing really well gets forced out [of the lineup]. That's definitely the case with Chore; he is a guy who is very, very consistent. I played a little bit with him last year, and he's really good to play with. I think if you ask anybody in the room, he is a perfect teammate to have."
Video: Barry Trotz Pregame | November 14
In The Nets - Braden Holtby won the Vezina Trophy in 2015-16, and he was a finalist for the award last season. He has also won 40 or more games in each of the last three seasons. But playing behind a team that is diminished in terms of talent, health and depth this season, Holtby is in the midst of one of his best sustained stretches of netminding.
A day after he was named the NHL's third star for the week ending Nov. 12, Holtby will get the net for the Caps in Nashville. Over his last six starts, Holtby is 6-0-0 with a 1.79 GAA and a .944 save pct. He will be seeking his 11th win of the season against the Preds, and he is 3-1-1 with a 2.86 GAA and a .900 save pct. in six career appearances against Nashville.
Pekka Rinne will be in goal for the Predators tonight, and he is also off to an excellent start in 2017-18. Rinne is 8-2-2 with a 2.23 GAA and a .929 save pct. this season. Lifetime against the Capitals, Rinne is 3-1-0 with a 2.25 GAA and a .920 save pct.
Video: Caps Pregame Locker Room | November 14
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and the Predators to look on Tuesday night when they take to the ice at Bridgestone Arena:
18-Stephenson, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 25-Smith-Pelly
13-Vrana, 20-Eller, 43-Wilson
10-Connolly, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
65-Burakovsky (upper body, week-to-week)
9-Forsberg, 92-Johansen, 33-Arvidsson
22-Fiala, 8-Turris, 15-Smith
17-Hartnell, 19-Jarnkrok, 10-Sissons
55-McLeod, 13-Bonino, 51-Watson
7-Weber (lower body)
17-Hartnell (lower body)