The Caps come into Saturday's game - their third in less than 72 hours - on the heels of a pair of painful setbacks at the hands of Metro teams in a set of back-to-backs earlier in the week. Washington lost a 5-2 home ice decision to the Flyers on Wednesday and fell 6-5 to the Rangers in overtime a night later in Manhattan. After taking Friday off to lick their wounds, the Caps continue their three-game trip today with their first visit of the season to Pittsburgh. The trip concludes in Buffalo on Monday night.
"I think we've just got to regroup," says Washington winger Carl Hagelin. "Day off [Friday] and then get excited for the game against Pitt. I think we play our best when we're excited and we're pissed off, and we need to bring that against Pitt."
The Caps' lone win in their last seven Metro matches came at home against Pittsburgh on Feb. 23, but the Pens added a trio of forwards and got a trio of players back from injured reserve since then, so the Pittsburgh lineup will look different and more formidable than it did two weeks ago.
Washington has had strong starts to each of its last two games, but has submarined itself with unforced errors thereafter, mostly in the way of unwise and unnecessary penalties.
"The start has been something we've discussed for a while now, and it's been better, getting the first goal," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "And then we lose traction by taking penalties. The other team is able to convert on that, and then we're back to square one a little bit.
"But I've liked our starts. We start last game and we're outshooting [the Rangers] 8-0 and then we end up taking a penalty and they convert. So that'll be important tonight in this building against this type of team, so we've got to be able to get off to a good start here."
The Race Is On - The 2019-20 regular season concludes four weeks from today, and the jockeying for playoff positioning is underway. With that in mind and with no morning skate today, it's as good a time as any to take a look at what lies ahead for the teams on Washington's side of the playoff picture, the Eastern Conference contenders.
First off, the top two teams in the Atlantic - Boston and Tampa Bay, respectively - are pretty much locked into their current spots in the standings, so we won't concern ourselves with them. Here's how the remainder of the field looks.
Washington (87 pts.) - Heading into the final four weeks, the Caps and Flyers have identical 40-20-7 records, and Washington is clinging to the top spot in the division only by virtue of having one more regulation/overtime win (36) than the Flyers (35). The Caps still have two sets of back-to-backs sprinkled among their final 15 games, and as of now only six of the 15 games are against teams currently in the playoff picture.
The Caps have two games left with Detroit and one with Ottawa, and they only have four Metro games left among their final 15: two in Pittsburgh (including today's game), one in Columbus and one at home against the Rangers.
Throughout most of the season, the Caps have been the healthiest team in the division, and that's still the case. They are in a good position to accrue points and put themselves in a prime spot heading into the postseason, but they need to raise their overall game significantly, and soon.
Philadelphia (87 pts.) - The Flyers are rolling right now, and they're the hottest team in the conference with eight straight wins. Philadelphia still has four sets of back-to-back games remaining, including a set at home next weekend against Minnesota and Edmonton, and a road set at Dallas and Nashville, respectively, on March 20-21.
Among Philly's home games are visits from Boston, St. Louis, the Islanders and Pittsburgh, so the Flyers will face some quality foes. They have four Metro games left, and five of their last six games are against teams currently outside the playoff picture. Overall, seven of their 15 remaining games are against playoff teams.
Pittsburgh (84 pts.) - The Pens are starting to get healthier, but are still playing without top six winger Jake Guentzel, who seems unlikely to return before the end of the season. Starting today against the Caps, the Pens have a Metro-heavy slate the rest of the way. Pittsburgh plays each of its next 10 games and 14 of its last 16 games against divisional opponents. The Pens have two games left with Washington and they haven't faced Carolina yet; they'll see the Canes for the first time this season on Sunday and will face them four times in a span of 11 games. All four will be part of back-to-backs; Pittsburgh has four sets of back-to-backs remaining. Only five of Pittsburgh's last 16 games are against teams in the playoff picture.
Columbus (79 pts.) - The Jackets have been battered with injuries all season, and they've scuffled of late as well, going 2-4-4 in their last 10. But even with just two wins in 10, they've pulled points in six of the 10 and that has kept them afloat.
From a standpoint of quality of opposition, the Jackets have one of the toughest remaining schedules. They only have 14 games left, and 10 of them are against playoff clubs, and they still have four back-to-backs left as well.
Among Columbus' remaining games are road games in Edmonton, Vancouver, Boston, Toronto, Tampa, Dallas and Carolina. Columbus also plays only five of its final 14 games at home. If the Jackets manage to get in, they'll have earned it.
Toronto (79 pts.) - The Leafs have a good hold on third place in the Atlantic Division for the moment, but Florida does hold two games in hand. Toronto has only one set of back-to-backs left, and it plays playoff teams in six of its final 13 games. The Leafs have two games remaining against Tampa Bay and one each against Boston and Washington. Third place in the Atlantic and a first-round date with Tampa Bay is Toronto's for the taking.
NY Islanders (79 pts.) - The Isles have nine road games and three back-to-backs among their remaining 16 games. The Islanders host the Hurricanes today, and then they play five of their next six on the road, and all against teams in the playoff picture. New York has a four-game trip to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Pittsburgh coming up after today's game, and the middle two games on the trip will be played on consecutive nights.
The Isles also have road games remaining in Toronto, Philly and Columbus. On the plus side, five of their final six games are against teams outside the playoff picture. New York's fate will likely hinge on how these next six games - all against playoff teams - go.
NY Rangers (76 pts.) - The Rangers stopped a three-game skid with a win over Washington on Thursday, and New York's power play has been humming for months now. Losing Chris Kreider to a broken foot is a tough blow, and the Rangers will face teams currently in the playoff picture in 11 of their final 15 games, with a pair of back-to-backs mixed in.
Among the Rangers' remaining games are three against Pittsburgh and one each against Washington, Philadelphia and Columbus as New York looks to climb the Metro ladder.
Carolina (75 pts.) - Missing their top two goaltenders and a pair of top four defensemen has sent the Canes into a tailspin, and their remaining schedule is fairly unforgiving. They have four games remaining against Pittsburgh, and all four are part of the five (!) sets of back-to-back games they have left.
Carolina started a five-game road trip with a loss in Phillly on Thursday and faces the Isles and Pens this weekend. It will be a tough slog for the Canes to get in, and they'll earn their way in if they manage to get there. Carolina has the advantage of having 17 games remaining, the most of any team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Florida (74 pts.) -- Florida can get in either by catching and overtaking Toronto for third place in the Atlantic, or by nudging its way ahead of the Metro field for the final wild card spot. Florida holds two games in hand on the Leafs at the moment, and the Panthers will play those two games in the next few days; they host the Habs today and face the Blues in St. Louis on Monday. Winning both games would get them to within a point of Toronto, but the Panthers have been struggling hard, going 3-5-2 in their last 10 and losing a lot of home games.
Florida has seven of 15 remaining against playoff teams and two sets of back-to-backs. They have one game left against the Leafs and one against the Rangers, but otherwise must depend on help from the rest of the league to overtake the teams ahead of them. The Panthers are a longshot at this point.
In The Nets - Braden Holtby is expected to be in net on Saturday afternoon against the Penguins. Nearly two weeks ago in Washington, Holtby made 32 saves in a 5-3 win over Pittsburgh, halting a personal three-game slide (0-2-1) in the process. He has helped the Caps to at least a point in four of his last five starts (3-1-1).
Lifetime against the Penguins, Holtby is 10-11-3 with two shutouts, a 3.01 GAA and a .909 save pct.
For Pittsburgh. Matt Murray will make his third straight start and his third straight start this season against the Capitals today. Pittsburgh is starting a set of back-to-back home games - it will host Carolina on Sunday afternoon - and it will go with Murray today and Tristan Jarry tomorrow.
Lifetime against the Caps, Murray is 8-5-0 with a 3.56 GAA and an .888 save pct.
All Lined Up - Without benefit of a morning skate, we don't know how the Caps' lines and pairs will look today, but we do know the same 20 players who dressed for Thursday's game in New York will get sweaters today in Pittsburgh when the Caps and Pens get together for the third of four meetings in 2019-20:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 17-Kovalchuk
14-Panik, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
16-Zucker, 87-Crosby, 43-Sheary
12-Marleau, 71-Malkin, 17-Rust
19-McCann, 27-Bjugstad, 72-Hornqvist
9-Rodrigues, 53-Blueger, 13-Tanev
18-Simon (upper body)
46-Aston-Reese (lower body)
59-Guentzel (upper body)