For the Isles, Saturday's matinee is merely the front end of a weekend set of back-to-back Metro games. The Isles are off to Raleigh after Saturday's game; they've got a late Sunday afternoon date with the Hurricanes in Carolina.
The Caps return to action on Jan. 27 when they take on the Canadiens in Montreal. The Isles then return to the region for a Tuesday night tilt with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, their third meeting with the Blueshirts in a span of nine nights. Once that game is in the books, the Isles' bye week begins.
Bye Bye, Baby - The concept of the bye week is a relatively new feature in the league, introduced midway through the last decade. It's a much needed and richly deserved break from the rigors of the rinks and the trials of travel that are part of life in the NHL, and an opportunity for a midseason reset just ahead of the most important hockey of the season.
"They wanted to make something where guys could mentally know that they're getting a day off," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson, "or we could mentally know that there's four or five days coming up where you're going to get a little bit of a break. And even if it's mental, throughout the course of a long season it can make a big difference, and just even reset the mind and the body a little bit, and get ready for the end of the year."
Playing 82 games over a span of six months is a marathon, so having a break shortly after the midpoint makes sense.
"I think it's awesome," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "I think it's one of the best things that that NHL and the NHLPA have agreed upon. It's a long season, you know. It gives you something to look forward to in the middle of the season, and to even have a bit of a normal life that way where you can have a vacation, see a bit of the world and different places, and actually recover your body and your mind a little bit, get away from everything so you can come back, and be fresh and really enjoy what you're doing."
But as Caps forward Richard Panik cautions, you can't just sit on the couch for a week. He recommends staying somewhat engaged, both physically and mentally.
"Personally, I like it," says Panik. "It's good to get your mind off hockey, and enjoy the time with your family, or do whatever. For me, it helps with the recovery of your body a little bit, so I like it. Maybe some guys don't like it, but I for sure like it.
"But now it's seven days, and it's important to stay in shape. You can't take seven days off and suddenly start playing again in two days. I usually take two or three days off, and then start doing something, you know, just get the body moving. Mentally, it's not like the middle of summer when you don't have to do anything after it. The most important part of the season is coming up - February and March, before the playoffs - so you have to stay mentally invested."
In The Nets - After Ilya Samsonov started each of the last two games for Washington, the first pair of consecutive starts of the rookie Russian goaltender's career, Holtby will be back in the net on Saturday afternoon against the Isles.
Holtby will be making his first start in a week. He lost a 5-1 decision to the Devils in Washington last Saturday, the sixth straight start in which he yielded three or more goals against. It seems as though even the league's elite goaltenders are subject to such stretches every year or two, and it's a matter of snapping out of it as quickly as possible.
"Everyone goes through them, usually," says Holtby. "Unless you're on a real defensive team or something, they don't get magnified as much. But sometimes little things creep into your game that you get away with for a while, and then you don't. And sometimes, it's just the way the game works. Sometimes the puck just finds that hole, or finds that open guy, or it goes off people.
"It goes in spurts that way. It's a way to bring things back, and really evaluate your game a different way. but all the time, it's not the nearly as bad as you think it is, and when it's going good it's not nearly as good as you think it is, It's just one of those things that every guy has to go through, because sometimes the puck just finds its way in. It gives you an opportunity to get better."
For Holtby, when it does happen, it's about putting the work in and facing shots in practice versus spending a lot of time thinking about it.
"You try and search for reasons," says Holtby, "and a lot of time you come up blank. Sometimes you can find little things that might help, but it's mainly a mentality. You just get back to work, and I'm just trying to see as many pucks as I can, and try and get as much work in, because I like to be on the ice consistently.
"I think there was a time there where I wasn't on [the ice] as much, and I let it slip into my game. Then you start thinking and overthinking things, and over-processing plays and being one step ahead instead of just being engaged in the moment. So it's more about just getting back to work, find those natural instincts, and just go out and play."
Lifetime against the Islanders, Holtby is 16-6-3 with a 2.39 GAA and a .920 save pct. in 25 appearances.
For New York, Saturday's game is the front end of a set of back-to-backs, so the Isles will almost certainly split their goaltenders. Our best guess is that ex-Cap Semyon Varlamov will get the net this afternoon against Washington. He was excellent in the last meeting between these two teams, stopping 36 of 39 shots he faced in a 4-3 Isles win on Dec. 31 in the District.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Varlamov is 4-5-1 with a 2.51 GAA and a .931 save pct. in 10 appearances.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Islanders to look on Saturday afternoon in Uniondale when they meet up for the third of four times this season:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 14-Panik
28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
27-Lee, 13-Barzal, 7-Eberle
18-Beauvillier, 29-Nelson, 10-Brassard
32-Johnston, 12-Bailey, 14-Kuhnhackl
17-Martin, 53-Cizikas, 47-Komarov
3-Pelech (lower body)