Just over three weeks ago, the Capitals returned from Winnipeg where they put a 3-0 shutout defeat on the Jets on March 2. The Caps had a couple of days after that game to rest before they hosted the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center on March 5. Beginning with that game against Boston three weeks ago, the Caps have not had more than a day between games in the last three weeks.
Later this week, Washington has a veritable late season oasis with a three-day gap between games, matching the longest gap the Caps will have between any two games this season. But the Capitals can’t be caught looking ahead to that gap. They have business to attend to first, and that involves hosting the New York Islanders at Verizon Center tonight.
“We’ve got a little score to settle with the Islanders,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “We had them in a good spot last time but penalty trouble got us in trouble so we need to get points and try to get some separation between us and the Islanders.”
The Caps and Islanders are tied for 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, just two points in arrears of the New York Rangers for the eighth and final playoff spot with two-thirds of the season in the rear view mirror.
Washington has just returned from a very successful road trip, its longest of the season. After dropping a 2-1 decision to the Penguins in Pittsburgh, the Caps finished the trip with a flourish, winning three straight by a combined score of 13-3.
Among the most impressive aspects of Washington’s road game was the fact that the Caps surrendered two or fewer goals in four straight games for the first time this season, and that they only trailed for fewer than 10 minutes (8:02) of the 245 minutes of hockey they played on the trip.
Washington scored first in all four games on the road trip, and the Caps have scored the first goal in 15 of their last 21 games overall.
“We’re comfortable with the lead right now,” says Brouwer. “We had a couple of games in the beginning of the season where we were dropping leads and giving up points.
“Over the course of the trip I think we’ve learned a lot as far as how to guard a lead, who to continue to get separation during the game and to continue to score goals like we did in the two Winnipeg games. We’re feeling real good about our game. Our goals against is down because we’ve got good team defense and [Caps goalie Braden] Holtby is playing phenomenal.”
Indeed, he is.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin was named the NHL’s first start of the week on Monday for the week ending on March 24. Ovechkin has been on a roll; he has goals in five straight games and has totaled seven goals and 11 points in his last seven games.
Holtby is just as hot. He was named one of the game’s three stars in each of the four games on the trip, and he was the game’s first star in each of the last three contests on the journey, all Washington wins. Holtby is 7-3 in 10 starts this month with two shutouts, a 1.88 GAA and a .940 save pct.
For Washington, tonight’s game is its 13th in a span of just 22 days. It’s also just the second home game the Capitals will play in a span of 22 days, and it comes just after a long road trip and just ahead of the aforementioned three-game oasis.
The Caps will have to guard against a schedule letdown tonight against the Islanders.
“Yeah, for sure,” says Holtby. “That’s a factor that we have to make sure that we prepare for. Usually you come off a road trip and during it, you’re working, you’re trying to get through it and you’re keeping your focus. Then after you get home, you kind of relax a bit. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we don’t let that happen and to make sure that our intensity stays the same.”
After 13 games in 22 nights, there is no question that the Caps need a break. But they need the two points even more.
“We need that and especially the guys,” says Caps defenseman Mike Green of the upcoming three-day gap. “I just got back [into the lineup] but you can sense that there is some fatigue now. If we can get this last game, we’ve put together a good, solid stretch of games here and then we can kind of take a breath.
“Tonight is huge for us. We know the Islanders are going to come out and play strong and it will be a tough game so we’ve got to be focused.”
The Islanders have taken points in each of their last six meetings with Washington, going 3-0-3 during that stretch. New York netminder Evgeni Nabokov is 11-1-2 lifetime with two shutouts, a 2.19 GAA and a .925 save pct. in 14 career starts lifetime against the Capitals. Lifetime at Verizon Center, Nabokov is 6-1-1 with a 2.22 GAA and a .927 save pct. in eight starts.
“I think it’s a little bit of revenge against a team that beat us the last couple of times, I think,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward. “We definitely need a win, for us for the standings, for a little payback and also because we’re tied with them. There is a lot at stake.”
Washington’s next home game is also against the Islanders, on April 4. In between the Caps will set out on a three-game road trip, playing in Buffalo, Philadelphia and Carolina in a span of four nights.
The Caps will return from that trip just hours ahead of the NHL’s 2013 trade deadline, and when they do the schedule will be much more favorable the rest of the way. Washington will play just one set of games on back-to-back nights after the April 3 trade deadline and the Caps will play eight of their last 12 and six of their final eight games of the season on home ice.
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