BLUE JACKETS (6-5-1) at CAPITALS (8-2-3)
Last 10: Columbus 4-5-1; Washington 6-2-2
Season series: This will be the first meeting of the year for Columbus and Washington. The Jackets swept the season series last year with a pair of 3-0 victories.
Big story: With both the Caps and Jackets coming off disappointing losses, Sunday will be a good opportunity to get back on track.
Blue Jackets: After a fast start to the season, Columbus has fallen on some hard times. The Jackets have lost five of their last six in their current slump, with the frustration coming to a head Friday night. Columbus was three minutes away from an impressive win over the defending champion Penguins, but as its quick-strike offense is wont to do, Pittsburgh scored two goals in a span of 39 seconds, eventually prevailing in the shootout.
A disappointed Ken Hitchcock blamed pedestrian special teams for not closing out the win, saying, "We still don't have the killer instinct on the power play … we've had a chance to put the hammer down and we haven't done it."
Columbus ranks 14th in the League with the extra man, but the Jackets are hoping a greater emphasis on the power play Sunday in D.C. could be the key to snapping out of their current funk.
Capitals: Things had been considerably better in the U.S. capital until Friday. Washington had strung together six straight wins before a wild overtime loss to the Islanders. But that back-and-forth defeat looks more like a bump in the road than any sort of trend. The Caps have received strong goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore, while Alex Ovechkin is picking up right where he's left off the last two seasons, leading the League with 14 goals and 23 points. Center Nicklas Backstrom has played his part, tying San Jose's Joe Thornton for tops in the NHL with 14 assists.
While Washington's winning streak has helped it build a comfy seven-point cushion in the Southeast Division, the Caps' first loss of the year gave way to a four-game losing streak. Bruce Boudreau and company will be hoping a home game against the suddenly struggling Jackets is the right recipe for warding off another skid.
Who's hot: Despite the Jackets' recent woes, Rick Nash has been as productive as ever. The winger has six points in his last four games including two two-goal performances. In Washington, it doesn't get any hotter than Ovechkin, who has five goals in his last three games.
Injury report: Nikita Filatov is questionable for Columbus with a lower-body injury. Washington may be putting a battered lineup on the ice. While Mike Green is probable, Eric Fehr and Backstrom are questionable with various ailments, while Quintin Laing is the latest NHL player to come down with swine flu.
Stat pack: Over the first four seasons of his career, Ovechkin averaged 54.75 goals per year, a stretch that includes two Richard Trophies as the League's leading goal scorer. But if anyone knows the secret to keeping Ovi off the board it might be the Jackets. Columbus was the only team to keep the two-time defending Hart Trophy winner goal-less in multiple games last year. In fact, the Jackets were the only team the Capitals didn't score against.
Puck drop: Despite the loss to Pittsburgh, Hitchcock remained optimistic that Columbus had many good things to draw from the game.
"It should never have gotten to a shootout," he said. "We did everything well."
It might be tough for the Jackets to get back on track against the potent Caps. Columbus had Washington's number a year ago, but regardless of their loss to the Islanders, the Capitals have still looked as though they're running on all cylinders lately. Still, the man on the bench insists this is all a part of getting eventually getting Columbus to the League's elite.
"We're learning how to win," Hitchcock said. "This is a hard lesson, but you've got to learn all these lessons."
-- David Kalan, NHL.com