Tonight at Capital One Arena, the Caps get back to work after three days away from the rink when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Caps conducted a morning skate at MedStar Capitals Iceplex on Friday, and they did so without a pair of the six defensemen who have skated in each of the last 30 games for the Capitals.
Both Michal Kempny and Radko Gudas were sent home because of illness, and defenseman Christian Djoos was recalled from AHL Hershey. The Caps are hopeful that either Kempny or Gudas will rally enough during the day to be able to suit up on Friday night against the Blue Jackets. But if not, the Caps may have to make do with just five able-bodied defenders as they head into their weekend set of back-to-back games.
"It will be a game-time decision," says Caps coach Todd Reirden of his ailing blueline corps. "A couple of guys aren't feeling great this morning, so we'll see how they are tonight."
Video: Reirden Pregame | December 27
Asked if they would roll with five defensemen tonight if both Kempny and Gudas are unable to do, Reirden was noncommittal.
"That's not the plan," he says. "We'll see. Hope that both Michal and Radko are feeling better tonight."
Kempy and Gudas aren't the only Caps to be a bit south of the weather as they return from the holiday break. So in addition to hoping one of those two rearguards will be able to go on Friday night against the Jackets, the Caps are also hoping none of the others who are ailing takes a turn for the worse between now and game time.
Friday's game against Columbus starts a three-game run against Metropolitan Division opponents that will take the Caps right up to the midpoint of the season after their New Year's Eve matinee match against the New York Islanders. The game against the Jackets starts the Caps' seventh set of back-to-backs this season, and managing the ice time of his ailing defense corps with an eye toward keeping the group as fresh as possible for Saturday's game against the Hurricanes will be a challenge for Reirden and staff.
"In an ideal world, that's not a perfect thing," says Reirden. "So you've got to try to be creative with it. We'll see what we have in front of us tonight as we get closer to game time, and then make some decisions on how to use people a little bit differently maybe. So we'll see how it all sorts out by game time."
Washington has swept three straight sets of back-to-back games, accomplishing that feat for the second straight season after a gap of more than 27 years without turning the trick. The Caps are 4-1-1 in the front end of back-to-backs and 5-0-1 in the second half this season. They've won each of their last five on the back half.
"In an ideal world," says Reirden, "why we've been able to have the success we've had in back-to-backs is we've been able to limit minutes, we've been able to change goaltenders when we want to change goaltenders. We've been able to utilize players in different situations, and it has really allowed us to have success.
"It's not easy to win in this league, let alone back-to-back games. This will be especially a challenge, in not being as healthy as we can be, but that's the game, that's adversity, and we'll see how our guys respond."
Washington is one of 10 NHL teams which will play two games in as many nights coming out of the break.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | December 27
Familiar Foe - Friday's game marks the third time the Caps have faced the Blue Jackets in their last eight games. Washington has played Columbus, Boston and Tampa Bay three times each over a relatively short span of the season, and it has a new group of familiar foes just ahead.
The Caps faced the Devils in New Jersey a week ago, and that game is the first of three contests between the two Metro Division foes in a span of 13 games for Washington. The three games between the Caps and Devils will be played in a span of 28 nights.
Washington sees Carolina on Saturday, facing the Canes for the first time since the season's opening weekend. The Canes came back from a two-goal deficit in the third to win a 3-2 overtime decision on Oct. 5 in the Caps' home opener.
Each of the Caps' next two road trips are one-game jaunts to Carolina, and Washington will host the Canes here on Jan. 13 as well, playing the Hurricanes three times in a span of eight games spread over 17 nights. The Caps will also play the Islanders twice in nine games over 19 nights, and will face Ottawa twice in nine games over 25 nights.
In a typical pre-scout situation for an upcoming opponent, teams will look at the opposition's most recent handful of games. But when that handful of games includes a recent meeting between the two foes, that film might get a little more attention.
Video: Rinkside Update | John Carlson
"I think that this year as a whole, with video and meetings and stuff, we have done more review than watching the same stuff of a different team," says Caps defenseman John Carlson. "And I think - in my personal opinion - you can learn a heck of a lot more watching yourself and your team against a certain scenario or situation, and I think they've done a good job with that this year.
"But certainly in years past and now when you do have these clusters [of games against the same opponent] it's good to be able to make adjustments, either on the fly or from game to game, and just things that you think about down the stretch and into the playoffs when you have clusters against teams. I think you can learn a lot from that kind of ebb and flow or cat and mouse game of certain things, and I just much prefer watching us versus watching Boston play in New Jersey, and what Boston's forecheck did, or what New Jersey's neutral zone was against Boston."
In The Nets - Ilya Samsonov gets the start tonight against Columbus, and the Caps will go with Braden Holtby on Saturday night against the Hurricanes in Raleigh. Holtby started and lost each of the previous two meetings between Washington and Columbus earlier this month, so Samsonov is getting his first career look at the Blue Jackets.
In his five most recent appearances (four starts), Samsonov is 4-0-0 with a 1.95 GAA and a .917 save pct. On the season, he is 9-2-1 with a 2.39 GAA and a .914 save pct. Samsonov played the final two periods of Washington's final game before the holiday break, coming on in relief of Holtby in a 7-3 loss at the hands of the Bruins in Boston.
Columbus is not in action on Saturday, so it need not concern itself with splitting its goaltending tandem this weekend. Joonas Korpisalo has had the net for each of the Blue Jackets' last eight games, which coincides with the team's best string of success this season. The Jackets have won five straight while earning at least a point in each of their last eight games, and Korpisalo is 6-0-2 with a 1.68 GAA and a .942 save pct. during that eight-game stretch. Included in that run are two wins over the Capitals, one of which was a 30-save shutout against Washington on Dec. 16 in Columbus.
Lifetime against the Caps, Korpisalo is 3-0-0 in four appearances (three starts) with a 1.07 GAA and a .966 save pct.
Video: Locker Room | December 27
All Lined Up - Here is a look at how we expect the Capitals and the Blue Jackets to look on Friday night when they meet for the third time this month:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 14-Panik
28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
42-Texier, 18-Dubois, 50-Robinson
14-Nyquist, 38-Jenner, 11-Stenlund
71-Foligno, 10-Wennberg, 24-Gerbe
15-Lilja, 20-Nash, 49-MacInnis
13-Atkinson (lower body)
22-Milano (upper body)
27-Murray (upper body)
65-Nutivaara (upper body)
77-Anderson (upper body)
88-Sherwood (torn oblique)