Although they obviously scored first in their win over the Canes, sluggish starts have been an issue for the Caps of late. They've yielded the game's first goal in eight of their last 10, and were never able to get on track after falling down early to the Devils last Saturday.
"I think that the first five minutes is key for us," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "I think we have to establish - especially in our building - that the opposition has got to be ready for us. We need to make it a difficult place to play, and if you start that in the first five minutes of the game, they're like, 'This could be a long night.' And I think that's something that we put some more focus on going into Carolina. I thought it helped us there, and will again be a key thing for us tonight as well."
Tonight's game against New Jersey and a Saturday matinee match against the Islanders in New York are the Caps' final two games ahead of their bye week/All-Star break. The Caps also lost their last meeting with the Isles - a 4-3 loss here on New Year's Eve - so facing down a couple of Metro opponents who beat them in the last meeting could be just what the Caps need to propel them into the break on an upbeat note.
"We were disappointed and our players were disappointed with how we played against New Jersey last time," says Reirden, "and the first chance for them to respond to a poor effort was against Carolina. We did that. Now it's up to us to continue some of the things we built into the Carolina game, and we made some adjustments after re-watching them. And credit to them, New Jersey has played well since [interim coach Alain] Nasreddine has come on board, and they beat Tampa the night after us. Some credit needs to go to them, but we can play to a higher level as well. We need to match that work ethic and manage the puck. And the fact that it's key Metro points is important, yes."
Video: Reirden Pregame | January 16
With Monday's win over the Canes, the Caps are now 7-7-1 against Metro opponents this season, but they're 4-7-0 in their last 11 divisional games.
New Jersey occupies the cellar spot in the Metropolitan Division standings, but the Devils have shown an ability to drop even the most formidable of foes on any given night. Their last four victories have come against Boston, the New York Islanders, Washington and Tampa Bay, respectively. If the Caps were guilty of taking them lightly on Saturday, that shouldn't happen again tonight.
"Tonight's game is big for us," says Caps left wing Carl Hagelin. "We didn't play the way we wanted the last time we played them. I think it looked like no one wanted to be there; it was one of those games. But we came back against Carolina and showed what type of team we can be. There is no reason we shouldn't be able to sustain that, game in and game out.
"It's a good challenge for us tonight. They're playing well. They're playing way better than they were early on in the year, and they've got some swagger now, so we've got to be ready. But I think for us, it's about focusing on what we can do. What we did against Carolina was getting a good start. We need that tonight."
Video: Rinkside Update | Carl Hagelin
Jack Of Speed - When the Devils visited last weekend, they were without Jack Hughes, the first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Hughes missed Saturday's game with an upper body injury, one of eight games the 18-year-old has missed with two separate ailments this season.
Hughes returned to the Devils lineup for their Sunday night win over Tampa Bay in Newark, but left Tuesday's game against Toronto because of illness. The Devils are hoping he can play tonight, and they're also hoping fourth line center Kevin Rooney can go; he is also ill.
Hughes seems likely to play, and if Rooney cannot, New Jersey would likely suit up defenseman Mirco Mueller and go with seven defensemen and 11 forwards.
Through 38 games of his first NHL campaign, Hughes has totaled six goals and 17 points. He is tied for second on the team with three power-play goals, and is fourth on the club in power-play points (six). Hughes is averaging 15:40 per game in ice time as the Devils are easing him into their mix in their middle six. They have the luxury of doing so because of their previous first overall pick, Nico Hischier, who is second on the Devils in scoring and leads all New Jersey forwards with an average of 17:58 in ice time per night.
Including Hischier, the top pick in 2017, five of the last six players chosen with top two overall picks are in the Metropolitan Division, so the Caps can expect to see a lot of these young talents as they develop.
In The Nets - For the first time in his NHL career, Ilya Samsonov is getting consecutive starts, both on home ice. After his 23-save shutout over Carolina on Monday, Reirden is going back to the Russian rookie for Thursday's game against New Jersey.
"He obviously played phenomenal last game," says Reirden. "It's something where I'd like to see him against Jersey - a back-to-back home game - I think he has earned it. It's a chance for him to again take another step. We continue to give him different challenges - one after another here - without overwhelming him.
"I think this is the right move, a fair move, and a move that is deserved. And now we'll see how he does in a situation like this, where it's not back-to-back, but back-to-back starts in terms of games that we are playing. It will be good to watch [Thursday]."
As was the case with his start against Carolina, Samsonov will be seeing the Devils for the second time in his NHL career. He earned a 6-3 victory over them in Newark on Dec. 20, making 24 saves.
For New Jersey, we are expecting to see Louis Domingue in goal tonight. Sophomore Mackenzie Blackwood saw action in 13 of 14 New Jersey games from Dec. 10-Jan. 9, but is now on injured reserve with a lower body ailment. Domingue, acquired from Tampa Bay on Nov. 1, has had the net for New Jersey in each of its last three games. He was sharp on Saturday in defeating the Capitals, went back home to Newark and started the next night against Tampa Bay, defeating the Lightning to halt the Bolts' 10-game winning streak.
Starting a third game in four nights proved to be a bit much, as he yielded five goals on 19 shots in 31;31 of work on Tuesday against the Maple Leafs in Toronto, but Domingue gets the net again tonight against the Caps. He has won each of his last two starts against Washington, and is 2-1-0 with a 2.35 GAA and a .940 save pct.
Domingue is a relative NHL rarity in that his right hand is his catching hand. Washington hasn't seen many right-handed catching netminders in recent seasons. Since the outset of the 2014-15 season, the Caps are 8-7-2 against righty catching goalies, and those goaltenders have combined to post a 3.11 GAA and an .898 save pct. against Washington.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | January 16
All Lined Up - Here is a look at how we expect the Capitals and the Devils to look when they take the ice on Thursday night in Washington in the Caps' final home game before the bye week/All-Star break:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 14-Panik
28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
37-Zacha, 13-Hischier, 63-Bratt
20-Coleman, 19-Zajac, 97-Gusev
44-Wood, 86-Hughes, 17-Simmonds
90-Boqvist, 16-Rooney, 40-Hayden
21-Palmieri (lower body)
29-Blackwood (upper body)
36-Street (upper body)