The Caps returned to peak health with the activation of defenseman Christian Djoos from injured reserve. Djoos suffered a leg injury in the Caps' Dec. 11 game against Detroit, an injury that required surgery and a subsequent rehab period. Now, after nearly two months of watching, Djoos will be back in the Caps' lineup against the Panthers.
"That's the first game we've had our projected lineup from the summer healthy," confirms Reirden. "We're obviously using some different guys, but we haven't had a healthy or non-suspended lineup this year, so it's made for an interesting 50-plus games.
"But now we've got everyone healthy, we have all options in play and we'll be seeing Christian Djoos back in there tonight, a guy that had a lot of success for us last year in the playoffs. He didn't play in the first two games of the playoffs and then played the rest of the way. He had a big impact on our ability to move the puck out of our own zone and add offensively by joining the rush and making plays in the offensive zone. Now we'll see - once we get this group together - how we can reform our chemistry and move forward here."
Video: Todd Reirden | February 9
Better Thirds - Washington has had some difficulty hanging onto late leads this season. The Caps let a 3-1 lead slip away in the third period of Thursday's game before winning in overtime, and they've lost some games by letting go of late leads this season, too. On the season, the Caps own a minus-14 goal differential in the third period, the fourth-worst figure in the league behind Florida (minus-24), Anaheim (minus-16) and Los Angeles (minus-15).
The Caps have allowed two or more goals in the third period of six of their last eight games. In a couple of cases, those third period goals against resulted in lost leads. In other cases, it put those late leads in peril.
"I'm sure there is something there, but it's not obvious," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, when asked about the third period issue. "My gut tells me that it's just an instinct or a mentality thing. The urgency that it takes to take care of little plays - to make sure that you're clearing lines, clearing the blueline, getting puck support, being on top of people - we're just a little off in probably a few really small areas like that, that are giving teams a chance, and then they're converting.
"Really, they should have no chance. It should take a really good play or a funny bounce to beat you if you're protecting a lead with under five minutes to go. It's probably a combination of a few small things. Hopefully we can address it and be harder in those instances that can lead to an unnecessary chance."
Washington has yielded a total of nine goals against in the first four games of its six-game homestand, but it has surrendered five of them in the final frame. The Caps have surrendered 63 third-period goals on the season, compared to 57 in the second period and just 45 in the first.
"I think some of it is turnovers in the offensive zone where we get caught with three guys below the puck," says Caps center Lars Eller. "And some of it is where we need to be more connected as a five-man unit. If our forwards are connected to the [defense] when we are tracking back and we have good back pressure, it's very hard for the other team to create sustainable offense, and we force them to make turnovers. Every time we do those things consistently for 60 minutes, we very rarely lose."
Video: Rinkside Update | Andre Burakovsky
Cat Power - Entering Saturday night's game with the Capitals, the Panthers boast the NHL's second best power play unit with a success rate of 27.1 percent. Since Nov. 1, the Cats have scored 42 power-play goals in 42 games, and their 30.4 percent efficiency rate over that span is the best in the league. Florida has scored at least one power-play goal in 31 of those 42 games, and blueliner Keith Yandle has picked up 24 power-play points over that stretch, tops among all defensemen and tied for second overall during that span.
With an 81.5 percent penalty killing success rate on the season, Florida ranks a respectable 11th in the NHL in that department. The Panthers have allowed only two power-play goals against in their last 15 games, succeeding on 93.8 percent of their shorthanded missions over that span. The Cats are also disciplined, going shorthanded only 32 times in those 15 contests. Florida is a perfect 11-for-11 in its last half dozen games on the kill.
Where the Panthers are vulnerable is where most of the game is played, at five-on-five. Florida has scored just 91 five-on-five goals this season, tied for the fourth fewest in the league. The Cats have yielded 121 five-on-five goals, tied for fourth most in the league. Florida's minus-30 goal differential at five-on-five is the worst mark in the league, and could be an area of vulnerability as the Caps face Florida for the first time in three and a half months.
"They are a dangerous power play team for sure," says Reirden, "so we've got to make sure again that penalties are important for us as we move forward here in terms of having success. I think at five-on-five, they've got a lot of scoring on each line.
"For us, it's important that we make their top defensemen work tonight. I think their top guys - between Yandle and [Aaron] Ekblad are really solid, good defenders and can hurt you on the offensive end if you don't make them go 200 feet. So when we have our opportunities, we have to put pucks behind them.
"I think we've done a better job of that - in the Vancouver game in particular - in terms of putting pucks behind their defense and making some of their higher minute guys have to work. I think that's an important one for me, that we start to play that type of a game instead of the chance-for-chance. That's been a big change since the break, and the numbers support it as well. The number of odd-man rushes that we're giving up is down, and we need to continue to have that structure and not give them free offense and allow them to get up the ice. But we've got to take care of our own end first, and then our structure through the neutral zone, and then hopefully we can do some damage offensively at five-on-five."
Video: Two-Man Advantage | February 9
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net for Washington on Saturday, and he will be making the 400th appearance of his NHL career. The first of those appearances was a relief win over the Boston Bruins on Nov. 5, 2010. Tonight, HOltby takes aim on his 20th win of the season and the 245th of his NHL career.
Since returning from the break, Holtby has won two of three starts while stopping 95 of 101 shots he has faced (.941 save pct.). Lifetime against the Panthers, he is 10-2-1 with a shutout, a 2.61 GAA and a .912 save pct. in 14 career appearances.
For the Panthers - who have a home game looming on Sunday night against Tampa Bay - we are likely to see James Reimer in net on Saturday. Reimer has won two of his last three starts, posting a 2.03 GAA and a .944 save pct. in the process.
Lifetime against Washington, Reimer is 4-4-2 with a shutout, a 2.42 GAA and a .929 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Panthers to look when they meet on Saturday night at Capital One Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
65-Burakovsky, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
23-Jaskin, 26-Dowd, 72-Boyd
72-Vatrano, 16-Barkov, 63-Dadonov
11-Huberdeau, 21-Trocheck, 25-Brassard
68-Hoffman, 95-Borgstrom, 15-Sheahan
22-Brouwer, 62-Malgin, 7-Sceviour
8-Hawryluk (lower body)
17-McKenzie (upper body)