Washington reaches the end of its three-game road trip through Original Six NHL cities on Monday night in Manhattan when it takes on the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Caps and Rangers are starting a set of home-and-home contests on Monday night as well; the two teams will reconvene in Washington on Wednesday night to close out their season's series at Capital One Arena.
The Caps are seeking to build upon a modest three-game winning streak and they're aiming for a third straight road victory for the first time in 2017-18. It's been just over two years since the Capitals last ran the table on a road trip of three or more games in length, and they'll be looking to achieve that feat tonight as well.
Winners of seven of their last eight games, the Caps are getting good results, but it's also important for them to be building their game up to playoff standards over these last seven games of the regular season.
Video: Barry Trotz Pregame | March 26
"I think our game can get ramped up a little bit," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "We have been winning, but I wouldn't say our game is where I'd like it to be right now. I think guys are smart enough to know that we're getting down to the short strokes here and they're going to get their game ramped up.
"I think the Rangers are playing really well, they've got a lot of young kids and a lot of speed in the lineup, and a lot of enthusiasm. They're playing with detail, and pre-scouting them, it looks like they're adding some stuff not only for this year but maybe for next year as a staff. So they've been building their game a little bit, too."
The Caps are getting their first look at the Rangers since suffering a 1-0 shootout loss here on Dec. 27, in their first game back in action after the NHL's holiday break.
"It will be a good challenge for us," says Trotz. "The Rangers always play us extremely well, and the last time we were here, I didn't think we played very well. It was right after the Christmas break, and I didn't think our game was very good. Hopefully, we get it ramped up today and we get a win."
Video: Alex Ovechkin Pregame | March 26
Holtby Is Healthy - Caps goaltender Braden Holtby participated fully in Monday's morning skate, and on Monday morning the Capitals returned netminder Pheonix Copley to AHL Hershey. That means Holtby is back to peak health after missing the last couple of games with a lower body injury sustained last Tuesday in a win over the Dallas Stars.
"Protecting the asset and doing the right thing there was exactly the thing to do," says Trotz of Holtby. "He is healthy, he is going to back up tonight and then we'll have practice [Tuesday] and we'll see where he is for the next game, if he either goes in or we give him one more [game] off."
Video: Rinkside Update | Andre Burakovsky | March 26
The Chase - With two weeks now remaining in the 2017-18 NHL regular season, there is still a total of just nine points separating the top five teams in the Metropolitan Division standings. None of the five teams has cemented its berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs as of yet, and each of the five teams could still finish anywhere in the top five.
With either six or seven games remaining for all five teams, these last two weeks will determine first round opponents and seeding, and all five teams need to keep their foot on the gas to stay ahead of the charging Florida Panthers, who are the only team currently outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture that still has a chance to sneak in.
For a Capitals team that had nothing to play for at this juncture of the last two seasons, this season's chase for playoff positioning is a much different experience.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | March 26
"I think it is a way better situation just to be able to start to play like it's the playoffs right now," says Caps center Jay Beagle. "I've been saying that for probably five or six games now. If you let off the gas, you end up in second or third [place] or who knows what. It's something where we want to finish first, and if we do want to finish first, then we've got to play like it. I think it's a way better situation than letting off the gas and not really knowing it - where you're winning but you're not really playing your best, and you have such a big lead that it's been almost a month of that kind of hockey instead of fighting to get in. I think in previous years - way back when, when we fought to get in with [Dale] Hunter - you saw some of our best playoff hockey.
"So I think it's good for a team to fight to get in, and to fight to the end just to keep you in it and just to keep you playing the right way. We've got to make sure that we are playing the right way. We've had some moments here and there where we've been taking it a little bit too lightly or a little bit too easy just for maybe even five or six minutes in a game where we've got to make sure that we're preparing for the playoffs now and playing the right way for the whole 60 [minutes]."
Kid Stuff - The Caps faced a youthful blueline on Saturday night in Montreal, and that will be the case again on Monday in Manhattan when the Caps get their first look at the Rangers in three months. Not only will the Rangers be dressing four defensemen with fewer than 100 games worth of experience in the league, New York also recalled a pair of teenaged centers from its AHL Hartford farm team on Sunday.
Those centers - Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil - were New York's two first-round choices in the 2017 NHL Draft. Andersson was the seventh player chosen overall and Chytil was 21st. Chytil cracked the Blueshirts' opening night roster but was returned to Hartford after playing two NHL games in October. Andersson will be making his NHL debut.
On the blueline, grizzled veteran Marc Staal is New York's most experienced defender with 754 career games to his credit. The other five Rangers defensemen combined have just over a third as many games played (267) in the league.
Brady Skjei is second with 162 career games, then comes former Red Wing Ryan Sproul with 37 games. A trio of rookies follows: former Boston draft choice Rob O'Gara has played 26 games in the league, undrafted free agent Neal Pionk and Calgary draftee John Gilmour are each at 21 NHL games coming into Monday's match.
Pionk, who played collegiate hockey at U. of Minnesota-Duluth, has been the best of the bunch of young Rangers blueliners so far. He has a goal and 14 points in those first 21 games in the league, and he is skating on the top pairing with Staal and averaging 21:58 per night in ice time.
As was the case on Saturday in Montreal, the Caps need to set up camp in the New York end of the ice, try to establish a consistent forecheck and make the young defenseman feel as though they're under siege.
"We have to make it hard on them," says Beagle. "The thing with young guys or guys who are getting called up or guys who don't have a lot of NHL games, is that they're playing their best hockey. They want to stay, they want to make a mark, and they want to play. It makes for good hockey because we've got to get after them and try to make it hard on them. If we give them an easy night, it just gives them more confidence and makes them feel the game more and get into the game more. But if we dictate the game, it's going to go better for us than for the team that is on their heels."
In The Nets - Philipp Grubauer gets the net for the Capitals tonight, seeking his 14th victory of the season, which would be a single-season career best. Grubauer has appeared in 11 of Washington's last 14 games, and he has won five of his last six starts. Since the All-Star break, Grubauer is 9-3-0 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.12 GAA and a .930 save pct.
Grubauer earned his first career NHL victory at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 7, 2013. Lifetime against the Rangers, he is 2-2-1 with a shutout, a 1.69 GAA and a .947 save pct.
For the Rangers, Alexander Georgiev gets the net for the sixth time in the last seven games, as Rangers No. 1 netminder Henrik Lundqvist continues to recover from a back ailment. An undrafted free agent, Georgiev made his NHL debut last month, and after losing his first two starts, he is 4-1-1 in his last six decisions. Georgiev is also 3-1-0 in his four starts at Madison Square Garden this season. The 22-year-old rookie will be making the first appearance of his career against the Capitals on Monday.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and the Rangers to look for their Monday night meeting at Manhattan's Madison Square Garden:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
65-Burakovsky, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 13-Vrana
18-Stephenson, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
20-Kreider, 93-Zibanejad, 17-Fast
13-Hayes, 72-Chytil, 36-Zuccarello
26-Vesey, 50-Andersson, 23-Spooner
8-McLeod, 90-Namestnikov, 89-Buchnevich
22-Shattenkirk (torn meniscus)
47-Kampfer (fractured hand)