Nearly three months later, the Caps and Islanders occupy the top two spots in the Metro Division standings, just as they did at the conclusion of last season. Both teams have come back to earth a bit this month after torrid starts to the season. The Caps are 8-4-0 in December after entering the month with just four regulation losses on the season. New York is 7-5-1 this month after coming into December with only five regulation setbacks.
Some of Washington's recent struggles can be traced to its schedule and a lack of practice time. The Caps are in the midst of a run of eight straight games in which they've had to travel for every contest, and they went into the NHL's three-day holiday break with three games in four nights. Coming out of the break, they went straight into a set of back-to-backs, resulting in only one practice session over the final dozen days of the month. That practice took place on Monday.
"Systematically, you make some mistakes, just from not being able to re-emphasize as many details," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "I think when players learn and how they learn is in a number of different ways; some can learn through video, can learn through things that are written on a whiteboard. Other players have to go through the actual exercise to be able to do it during the game. Everyone learns a little bit differently, so we've been a little bit off in terms of that. And then just fighting through some injuries, and some sickness and some adjustments to lines during games and stuff.
"We'll get through [Tuesday] and then hopefully get closer to healthy come our next game against Carolina [on Friday]."
The illnesses and injuries certainly haven't helped. The Caps went into the break fully healthy, and they came out of it with a number of players ailing from some sort of bug that is coursing its way through the locker room. Less than 24 hours before today's game with the Isles, Reirden was unsure how many healthy players he would have available against the Isles and who they were.
Reirden didn't have much more clarity in that regard on Tuesday morning, either, so check back around warmup time to see who is in and who is out for today's tilt.
Video: Reirden Pregame | December 31
In The Nets - On Monday afternoon, Reirden was unsure of the identity of his starting goaltender for Tuesday's game against the Islanders. After running hot for the better part of two months, Braden Holtby has struggled in two straight starts, yielding nine goals in his last four periods of work. Rookie netminder Ilya Samsonov has won five straight starts, posting a 1.76 GAA and a .927 save pct. over that stretch, plus one relief appearance.
On Tuesday, Reirden announced that Holtby would get the Tuesday afternoon starting assignment against the Islanders.
On Monday, Reirden commented on the possibility of Samsonov earning more starts in the second half of the season on the basis of his strong showing to date.
"I've already put [Samsonov] in some games early on - through the first 40 games now - that technically we didn't have to, and that's been important both ways," says Reirden. "So we want to make sure that Braden stays fresh, and secondly we've got to continue to grow Ilya's game and see where he is, continue to challenge him and see how he responds, and he has responded really well to all challenges thus far. He has been obviously a real bright point to our season thus far.
"Braden Holtby is our No. 1 goalie; there's not a question on that. It's just what we do with the starts, and making sure that everybody's fresh and prepared for playing as long as we possibly can. It's definitely a discussion point and how to best utilize two good goalies."
Reirden also noted that he has found some value in giving Samsonov some starts against teams that haven't seen him before, which could indicate an upcoming starting assignment for Samsonov against Carolina in Washington's first game of the New Year on Friday night in Raleigh.
"I do [see value in that]," said Reirden on Monday. "That was something that went into my thought of playing Columbus [on Dec. 27], and maybe that goes into my thought of who's playing Carolina next. We try not to leave too many stones unturned when we're trying to find a way, or something that we feel can give us a competitive advantage before the game starts.
"So we look at all those all those scenarios, we look at certain records against teams; certain players have teams they play better against as well, not just goalies. The scouting is so good now that when you're actually playing against that team, it's even more emphasized what ways you can beat goaltenders and what ways you can't, so it's good to keep [the identity of the starter] a little bit uncertain, and that's probably why I'm not announcing the goaltender right now with, with the Islanders."
Lifetime against the Islanders, Holtby is 16-5-3 with a 2.32 GAA and a .923 save pct. in 24 appearances.
New York is being cagey as to the identity of its starting goaltender for Tuesday's game. Ex-Cap Semyon Varlamov has been deployed a bit more frequently in what has been a fairly even spilt with veteran Thomas Greiss, and Varlamov has played in four of the Isles' last five games.
Lifetime against the Caps, Varlamov is 3-5-1 with a 2.45 GAA and a .932 save pct. in nine appearances, while Greiss is 3-3-1 with a shutout, a 2.15 GAA and a .927 save pct. in seven appearances.
All Lined Up - Neither team skated today, and the Caps are dealing with injuries and illnesses, so nothing is known for certain a couple of hours ahead of game time. But here is an educated guess as to how we expect the Capitals might look today, and this is how the Islanders looked at the end of their Sunday game against the Wild in Minnesota. On Tuesday afternoon these two Metro foes meet for the Caps' final home game of the decade, the year 2019, the month and the first half of Washington's 2019-20 regular season schedule:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 14-Panik
28-Leipsic, 72-Boyd, 21-Hathaway
29-Djoos (upper body)
27-Lee, 13-Barzal, 14-Kuhnhackl
18-Beauvillier, 29-Nelson, 10-Brassard
32-Johnston, 12-Bailey, 7-Eberle
19-Martin, 53-Cizikas, 47-Komarov
15-Clutterbuck (lower body)