Immediately after tonight's tilt with the Flyers, the Caps head to Manhattan where they'll take on the New York Rangers on Thursday. After an off day in Pittsburgh on Friday, the Caps will tangle with the Pens in a 1 p.m. game on Saturday afternoon. Washington concludes its three-game trip in Buffalo on Monday night.
Washington has six games remaining against Metro opponents this season, and it will play half of those games in the next few days. The Capitals are 10-11-1 against Metro Division opponents this season, and they are 7-11-0 in their last 18 games against divisional foes.
Blueline Blues - In a 6-1 win over the Ottawa Senators here on Jan. 7, five different Caps defensemen picked up points in the victory. John Carlson had a pair of assists, Radko Gudas scored his second goal of the season, and Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov and Jonas Siegenthaler each collected an assist.
Washington's win that night left the team with a 30-9-5 record on the season, and the team's defense corps had combined for 23 goals and 92 assists for 115 points in 44 games, an average of 2.61 points per game. On a points-per-game basis, it was the largest offensive contribution from the Washington defense corps since the historic 1992-93 Caps blueline, which rolled up 94 goals and 264 points for an average of 3.14 points per game.
That '92-93 Caps team is the only club in NHL history to feature three defensemen with 20 or more goals: Kevin Hatcher (34), Al Iafrate (25) and Sylvain Cote (21).
But since that game against Ottawa, the Caps' blueline has gone dry offensively, and with it, so has the team's overall 5-on-5 attack. After the Ottawa game, the Caps were tied for fifth in the league with 101 goals at 5-on-5. Since that night, the Caps rank 17th in the league with 45 goals at 5-on-5 in 21 games. Washington's defense has contributed only two goals (both from Carlson) and 32 points for a paltry 1.33 points per game, a precipitous dip of about 50 percent from its output over the first 44 games of 2019-20.
It's no surprise that the Caps' record during that stretch is a pedestrian 10-10-1.
Carlson is still producing; he has both goals and 19 of the 32 blueline points the Caps have accounted for since Jan. 7. Orlov has five assists in 21 games, Nick Jensen four assists in 20 games, Kempny has two assists in 21 games, Gudas has one assist in 18 games and Siegenthaler is without a point in 16 games since then.
Video: Reirden Pregame | March 4
"I think it goes a little bit in phases with how the game is being played," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "I think that there's a lot more emphasis on defense from the opposition, [and] from our own team; I've been talking about it for a while now.
"As you get closer to the end of the year, things seem to get locked down a little bit and some of the rush chances are taken away. People are more apt to block shots than they were in the past as games get to be more and more important here.
"For me, it's still coming back to team defense. We've got to continue to improve that team defense and keep those even-strength goals [against down]. Keep diminishing those and climbing the ladder in terms of working our way towards being on the right side of half of that of that number. We're there now and we've got to continue to push forward because at the end of the day we can score with anybody in the league, we know that. We've got to be able to defend, and it's a five-man unit and helping our goaltender, whoever it is that's in there."
With 80 percent of the season in the books, the Caps are still unsure of what their ideal six-man defense corps will look like. From mid-October through early February, they ran the same six defensemen except for two games when Kempny was out because of illness. Tonight, Kempny is expected to be a healthy scratch for the first time as a Capital and the first time in more than two years. He becomes the fourth different Washington blueliner to be scratched - joining Gudas, Jensen and Siegenthaler - in the last month.
Just past the midpoint of the third period of the Caps' 4-3 win over the Wild in Minnesota on Sunday, Kempny took a bad penalty - an interference minor for tackling Minny's Kevin Fiala - and the Wild scored on the ensuing power play to pull within a goal of the Caps at 4-3.
Kempny didn't play for the rest of the game, finishing at 14:07 on the night. He has played 55 games this season, and only logged less ice time once. That was when he skated 12:59 in a Dec. 31 game, the game after he returned from the aforementioned two-game illness absence. In his 148 games in a Washington sweater, Kempny has averaged 18:40 per night in ice time.
"Obviously he is an excellent player," says Reirden. "He was a big part of us winning the Cup two years ago. He has gone through a serious injury, and his game isn't where he would like it right now, and probably us either.
"For me, it's about trying to find the right combination of guys that give us the best chance to have six defensemen that play well together, that can give us the best chance to win. We've got super important points here, and important games coming up this week, so we'll go with the guys who give us the best chance to win [Wednesday] night."
This current stretch of 1.33 points per game from the defense over nearly a third of a season is an anomaly for recent vintage Caps teams. The last time Washington's blueline brigade was down in that range over the course of a full season was the dark days of 2003-04 when it registered 1.40 points per game, led by Sergei Gonchar's 49 points (seven goals, 42 assists) before he was shipped off to Boston ahead of the trade deadline that season. With 14 points (two goals, 12 assists), Josef Boumedienne was Washington's second leading scorer among defensemen in 2003-04.
Last season, Caps defensemen totaled 35-150-185 for an average of 2.26 points per game. That was the biggest offensive contribution by any Washington blueline brigade since the 1993-94 group posted 51-153-204 in 1993-94 for an average of 2.43 points per game.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | March 4
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net tonight for Washington, and he will be seeking his fourth straight victory. Holtby is 3-1-1 in his last five starts, and he has won 12 games at home and 12 on the road this season.
This is the time of year when Holtby's game generally settles into postseason mode; he is 56-22-7 lifetime in the month of March, with 10 shutouts - his highest whitewash total in any month - a 2.33 GAA and a .920 save pct. He is even better in regular season games in the month of April, going 24-3-4 with three shutouts, a 2.08 GAA and a .933 save pct.
Lifetime against Philadelphia, Holtby is 13-6-8 with a couple of shutouts, a 2.60 GAA and a .912 save pct. in 28 appearances.
Wednesday's game is also the front end of a set of back-to-backs for the Flyers, who return home to host Carolina on Thursday. They'll save Carter Hart for the Hurricanes; Hart is 18-2-2 with a 1.67 GAA and a .941 save pct. at home, but he is 4-10-1 with a 3.81 GAA and an .857 save pct. on the road. That means veteran Brian Elliott will get the net on Wednesday in Washington.
Elliott was in goal when the Flyers put a 7-2 pasting on the Caps here in D.C. on Feb. 8. He will be making his first start since Feb. 20 when he picked up a 4-3 overtime win over the Blue Jackets in Columbus. Eighteen of Elliott's 26 starting assignments have come on the road this season, where he is 11-5-2 with a 3.15 GAA and an .894 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Flyers to look on Wednesday night in Washington when they get together for the final time this season:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 17-Kovalchuk
14-Panik, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
28-Giroux, 14-Couturier, 93-Voracek
21-Laughton, 13-Hayes, 11-Konecny
25-van Riemsdyk, 38-Grant, 18-Pitlick
12-Raffl, 44-Thompson, 62-Aube-Kubel
19-Patrick (migraine disorder)
23-Lindblom (Ewing's sarcoma)
55-Morin (torn ACL)