Quarter Pole - The NHL trade deadline is mere days away on Monday afternoon, and more than half of the teams in the league have 60 or more games in the books this season. The Capitals got to 60 on Thursday in a 4-3 overtime loss to Montreal, and now they will head into the final quarter of the campaign looking to get their collective game into playoff form.
Typically, the Capitals put on a strong finishing kick in the season's final quarter. Since the start of the 2007-08 season - Nicklas Backstrom's rookie campaign - the Caps own a 592-305-113 record, and their .642 points pct. is tops in the league over that span, just ahead of Pittsburgh (.639). But Washington is even better over the final 22 games (and the final 12 games of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season), going 157-92-28 for a points pct. of .673 over the season's final quarter over that time frame.
They're trying to get their game back after enduring prolonged slump in which they've gone 11-11-1 in 23 games over the last two months.
"I think our intentions have been to flip the switch," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, "and maybe that's proving as a good reminder that you can't just go into the playoffs thinking that way and to expect your game to follow. We're not playing winning hockey for regular season games, and certainly not for playoff hockey at this point."
Start Me Up - Among Washington's final 22 games are a quartet of afternoon contests, including three against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the current occupant of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division standings.
Even when they face teams outside the playoff chase - as was the case on Thursday against the Canadiens - the Caps are finding that the opposition typically has its game at a higher level than Washington's. That has been a more acute problem in afternoon games, where the Caps have a 3-4-1 record overall, but they've been outscored by a combined 25-12 in the first 40 minutes of those eight matinee affairs.
Late afternoon suits them better; they've outscored the opposition by 16-4 in the third period and overtime of those eight games. But all three Washington wins in the afternoon required comebacks from multi-goal deficits, and all four losses came on comebacks that fell short.
"It seems like post-Christmas a little bit - but definitely post-All-Star break - teams are kicking it into gear" said Caps winger T.J. Oshie after the Caps dropped an afternoon game in Vegas earlier in the week. "Typically that starts with the drop of the puck; teams are fired up, ready to play, ready to do the right things, or at least that how it seems against us.
"They come out and they're getting pucks deep, and they're playing the body. We had a little bit of it, but our level just wasn't high enough. You can't say one word or write something on the board that is going to get that going; that's got to me on the guys in the room here: myself, [Alex Ovechkin], Nick [Backstrom], John [Carlson], [Braden Holtby] - all the leaders. I think it's on us to have the boys prepared and ready to go."
Washington is 6-1-1 in the front end of back-to-backs this season, and it has won each of its last five in that situation. But it will likely need to solve its slow start issues to keep that trend going.
"Starts have been a problem for us," says Reirden. "Our third periods have been our best, and overtime when we've played afternoon games. It's something that was discussed; we've got to find a way to get ourselves mentally and physically into the game, and that's going to play a big role in today and [Sunday's] game as well."
In The Nets - After Braden Holtby started each of the last four games for Washington, Ilya Samsonov will be back in the crease on Saturday afternoon in Newark. Samsonov makes today's start on his 23rd birthday, and he is coming in off losses in each of his last two starts. Samsonov was pulled midway through the second period of his most recent start on Feb. 10 against the Islanders.
With the Caps facing their first set of back-to-backs in more than a month, today is an organic opportunity to get Samsonov back between the pipes.
"Braden has played really well as of late," says Reirden, "so it was a situation where he wanted to get him into a little bit of a rhythm. I think he's been solid for a number of games there, and this gives me a chance to get back in there. [Samsonov] knew yesterday, so he's been preparing and will hopefully be ready to go here in an early afternoon game."
In two career starts against New Jersey, Samsonov is 2-0-0 with a 2.50 GAA and a .918 save pct.
We are expecting Mackenzie Blackwood to get the net today for New Jersey. Blackwood has an impressive 20-12-7 record for a last-place Devils team, and he comes into Saturday's game riding a personal five-game winning streak. During the life of that streak, he has seen an average of 40 shots per game, he has recorded two shutouts, and he has fashioned an 0.99 GAA along with a .974 save pct.
Blackwood has also excelled in afternoon games this season, going 3-1-0 with a 1.47 GAA and a .944 save pct. in four matinee starts.
In three career starts against Washington, Blackwood is 0-3-0 with a 3.94 GAA and an .868 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Devils to look on Saturday afternoon in Newark when they meet for the final time this season:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 14-Panik
28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
86-Hughes, 13-Hischier, 21-Palmieri
63-Bratt, 37-Zacha, 97-Gusev
44-Wood, 19-Zajac, 17-Simmonds
15-Hayden, 16-Rooney, 14-Anderson
8-Butcher (upper body)