On paper, Columbus looks likely to win its last two games, both of which are on the road. The Jackets face the Rangers in New York on Friday and finish the season a night later in Ottawa against the Senators.
Montreal faces the Caps tonight and hosts Toronto on Saturday. The Canadiens could win their final two games and still not make the playoffs; if that happens, they'll be the first 98-point team ever to miss the postseason. The Habs likely will need to win their last two games while hoping for a Columbus slip-up in a weekend set of back-to-backs on the road. If the Canadiens fail to catch Columbus, their playoff hopes would then hinge upon catching/passing Carolina or Pittsburgh. Coming into Thursday's game, they trail the Canes by one point and the Pens by three.
The Habs have put on quite a late surge merely to remain viable for this long. They're coming to own on the heels of wins over the Jets in Winnipeg and over the league-leading Lightning in Montreal on Tuesday. The Canadiens are 6-1-1 in their last eight games, outscoring opponents by a combined 30-17 in the process.
Video: Rinkside Update | Brett Connolly
Got To Make A Comeback - Normally, winning two of three games on a road trip is seen as a positive in the NHL, but the Caps have a bit of a bad taste in their mouths after returning home from their final trip of the season with a 2-1-0 mark. That's because collectively, they delivered a rather lackluster performance in Monday's road finale, a 5-3 loss to the Panthers in Florida.
The Panthers scored three times in the second period to take a 4-0 lead into the third period of that game, and the Caps scored three goals in the back half of the final frame to make the result look more respectable, but in the end, they fell to Florida for the third time in as many meetings this season.
Although they will miss the playoffs for the 16th time in the last 18 seasons, the Panthers not only swept the season's series from Washington for the first time in their history, they never trailed at any point in any of the three games and led by multiple goals in each of the three.
To the Caps' credit, they rebounded from three- and two-goal deficits to force overtime in their first two meetings with Florida this season, and with Washington owning a three-point lead over the New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division standings, those two standings points loom large now.
"It's funny how you look back and see all that," says Caps defenseman John Carlson, "and which games stood out to you in terms of points. That's why in this league every game is so important, and it doesn't matter when it is. They certainly had our number. I think we are all aware of the situation, and wanting to put this thing away so we don't have to wait until the last game of the season."
For several seasons now, the Caps have been diligent about not letting losing streaks fester. The one notable exception was in the midst of the current season, just ahead of the All-Star break, when the Caps lost seven straight games (0-5-2). Not long before that slide, they won 16 of 19 games. And they've come back from the break to post a tidy 20-8-2 mark, the fourth best record in the circuit over that span.
"The break clearly came at a good time for our team, now looking back on it," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "The message from our staff to our players before they left for that break and then the players' response says it all with how we've come back. The detail in our game has improved, our ability to defend is much better, our commitment to defensive play is back to what was expected and how we had success last year. I think that has allowed us to have that success.
"It's a long season, for sure, and to me it's their response when we've had a poor game has been a good showing the next game, or a better showing where we are able to gather the points we needed out of the games. It's not perfect, and it's definitely not a finished product. We are still working, and we're going to be working at it through the playoffs. We have room to get better and need to get better, and need to keep climbing here as we go through the next few weeks."
Video: Todd Reirden | April 4
Tonight, they'll try to bounce back from a bad beat, as they have been able to do after virtually every loss since the break. Washington has dropped consecutive games only once since the break, losing 5-4 in overtime to Tampa Bay on March 20 and falling 2-1 to the Minnesota Wild two nights later. The Caps followed up those losses with four straight wins before falling in Florida on Monday.
Washington has not lost consecutive games in regulation since that aforementioned seven-game slide in mid-January, more than 10 weeks ago.
Living On A Blue Line - Washington continues to get consistent offensive contributions from its blueline corps, as it has done virtually all season long. Caps blueliners have combined to record 35 goals and 150 assists for 185 points this season, for an average of 2.31 points per game.
The last time a group of Caps defensemen rolled up a higher point total was a quarter of a century ago, in 1993-94. The '93-94 Caps blueline brigade piled up 51 goals and 153 assists for 204 points, an average of 2.43 points per game during what was then an 84-game regular season schedule.
Carlson recorded his 70th point of the season in Monday's loss to the Panthers, becoming the first Caps defenseman to hit that plateau since Mike Green in 2009-10. Along with Dmitry Orlov (29 points), Matt Niskanen (25) and Michal Kempny (25), the Caps have a quartet of defensemen with 25 or more points for the first time since 1993-94 when they had four blueliners reach the 40-point plateau (Sylvain Cote-51, Al Iafrate-45, Calle Johansson-42 and Kevin Hatcher-40).
With 150 assists this season, Washington's blueline corps has matched its total from the 2014-15 season, the most it has amassed since it had 153 in 1993-94. With two games remaining, the Caps may be able to reach and/or surpass their total of helpers from the blueline from a quarter of a century ago.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | April 4
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net for Washington on Thursday, making his second start and third appearance of the season against Montreal. Holtby posted a 9-3-1 record in March, to go along with a shutout, a 2.31 GAA and a .916 save pct. Lifetime in the month of March, Holtby is now 55-22-7 with 10 shutouts, a 2.32 GAA and a .920 save pct.
He has been even better in regular season action in the month of April, going 23-3-4 with three shutouts, a 2.11 GAA and a .932 save pct. in 31 appearances.
Lifetime against the Canadiens, Holtby is 12-2-2 with a couple of shutouts, a 1.72 GAA and a .941 save pct.
Carey Price will be in goal for Montreal in a match-up of former Vezina Trophy winners. Price is in the midst of a strong rebound season; he went 16-26-7 in an injury-riddled season in 2017-18 but owns a 35-23-6 mark this season and is a primary reason the Habs are still fighting for a playoff berth.
Price has earned 15 of those victories since the All-Star break; only Andrei Vasilevskiy (18), Sergei Bobrovsky (17) and Jordan Binnington (17) have more victories over that span.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Price is 7-13-5 with a shutout, a 3.39 GAA and an .889 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and the Canadiens to look when they meet on Thursday night in the District:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
65-Burakovsky 26-Dowd, 72-Boyd
6-Kempny (lower body)
90-Tatar, 24-Danault, 11-Gallagher
62-Lehkonen, 13-Domi, 65-Shaw
92-Drouin, 43-Weal, 40-Armia
15-Kotkaniemi, 21-Thompson, 41-Byron