March 23 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM, 1500 AM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Columbus Blue Jackets 47-19-6
Washington Capitals 47-17-8
With 10 games remaining in their respective seasons, two of the NHL's top three teams - and two of the Metropolitan Division's top three teams - go at it on Thursday night at Verizon Center. The Capitals host the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second and final time this season on Thursday, but the two teams will meet again in Columbus on April 2.
Washington brings a four-game point streak (3-0-1) into Thursday night's game. Most recently, the Capitals opened their current three-game homestand with a 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames on Tuesday.
Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin scored on the power play and T.J. Oshie tallied his 30th of the season at even strength to support Braden Holtby's 29-save efforts in the Washington nets.
Twice in Tuesday's win, the Capitals' power play unit was able to double a one-goal lead to a two-goal advantage at a critical point in the contest. The first came when Backstrom nudged a Kevin Shattenkirk shot past Flames goalie Brian Elliott to give the Caps a 3-1 lead with just 2.9 seconds remaining in the second period.
Ex-Cap Troy Brouwer cut Washington's lead to 3-2 with 4:56 remaining, but Ovechkin scored a power-play marker just 125 seconds later to restore the two-goal cushion and usher the victory into the books.
"You talk about defining moment goals," said Caps coach Barry Trotz after the game, "you see that little crack that you maybe can take advantage of. We recognize that and the guys are really good at that."
Thursday's game against the Jackets is the latest in a string of substantial homestretch challenges the Caps have faced. The Blue Jackets are Washington's eighth straight opponent with something to play for as the end of the regular season draws near. Six of the Caps' foes over this stretch are currently in the playoff picture while the other two were within three points of a postseason berth at puck drop on the night of the game.
"I think it's great," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "You talk about being in a position to prepare yourself for the playoffs, we're going to have a couple of playoff games head-to-head with Columbus. The games that are against other opponents, they're going to have a big impact on the playoffs and where you sit in the playoffs."
Washington has a season long five-game road trip looming on the horizon as well. The Caps have won just over half of their road games to date (18-14-3), so there should be even more urgency to maximize their four remaining home games, too. With a 29-6-2 record at Verizon Center this season, the Caps are one win shy of matching the single-season franchise mark for most home victories in a season. They're 21-2-2 in their last 25 home games.
"I think it prepares you to play at a real strong level, and you're going to get tested a little bit," says Trotz. "I think that's great. I think that's great for us in the sense that it's a lot different than it was last year. Last year, we were trying to prepare for the playoffs and I think we did as good a job as we could, but it's not the same. You can't replicate when you're 20 points up on people, versus a point or half a point."
The Caps are 3-3-1 in this stretch in which they're facing especially formidable foes, but they got to this point after going 0-3-0 at the outset of the eight-game stretch.
"We're getting tested here," says Trotz. "That's good. We've prepared all year for moments like this. There's a good challenge. There is another moment that prepares us for what's ahead of us. I think it's a great opportunity to raise our game and find out what we're about, too."
"It's a fun time right now," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "We have 10 games left. You have to be ready, you have to be focused and you have to do your best to be in the playoff run."
The Jackets are 21-9-5 on the road this season, and they are two road victories shy of matching the single season franchise standard of 23, established in 2014-15. Columbus comes to town on short rest; the Jackets played host to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night, losing 5-2.
Columbus fell behind 2-0 in the first frame, but rallied to pull even with the Leafs in the second stanza. William Nylander's highlight reel breakaway goal put Toronto back on top 3-2 late in the second, and that's how it stayed headed to the third.
The Jackets had a golden opportunity to seize control of the contest when Toronto's Roman Polak was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for a hit on Oliver Bjorkstrand just a minute into the third. But the Jackets could do nothing with the all-you-can-eat power play, and they even got nearly two full minutes with the extra man beyond the five mandated by the Polak call; Leafs coach Mike Babcock neglected to send someone to serve Polak's penalty, and Toronto wasn't able to legally replace him on the ice until the next natural whistle.
When it was all said and done, Columbus had an extra man for 6:54 on a relatively fresh sheet of ice early in the third, but couldn't muster the tying tally. The loss leaves the Jackets in third place in the Metro standings, two points behind the Caps.
When Columbus and Washington last met, the Caps put a halt to the Jackets' remarkable 16-game winning streak, the longest in the NHL in nearly a quarter century. That was a Jan. 5 meeting at Verizon Center, a game in which Caps goalie Braden Holtby blanked Columbus 5-0 on 29 shots.
Not surprisingly, the Jackets hit a bit of a cool patch after that 16-game spree. Columbus won only half of its next 26 games (13-11-2) , but the Jackets have found their way once again and are on a bit of heater, Wednesday's loss to the Leafs notwithstanding. Columbus has won seven of its last nine overall.