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Jan. 30 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast Sports Network
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (24-21-8)
Columbus Blue Jackets (26-23-4)
For the second time in less than two weeks, the Capitals paying a visit to Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets, the newest member of the NHL’s Eastern Conference. The Caps and Jackets hook up on Thursday night in Ohio’s capital city.
The Caps’ last visit here 13 days ago was lopsided in the wrong direction for Washington. The Jackets jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead en route to a 5-1 victory over the Capitals. Columbus chased starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer that night; he left the game after allowing three goals on 14 shots in 22 minutes of work.
This time around, the two teams are tied for fifth place in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division standings. With just 29 games remaining for both teams, Thursday’s game – the last of four between Columbus and Washington this season – is that four-point division game that grows more important as the campaign grows shorter.
Additionally, the Caps are seeking to run their modest winning streak to three games for the first time since Dec. 7-10 while Columbus is looking to halt a three-game losing streak on Thursday.
“We’re not used to playing division games with this team,” says Caps winger Eric Fehr. “But we’re going to have to try to build up our rivalry with these guys and make sure we get up for these games. They’re really important for us. We’re trying to climb back up to where we were a few weeks ago and this is a team we’ve got to go through to do it.”
After thoroughly dominating the Canadiens in Montreal in a 5-0 victory on Saturday night, the Caps eked out a 5-4 overtime victory over the Sabres in Buffalo on Tuesday. Mike Green’s overtime game-winner propelled the Caps to two points, and Washington had an optional practice here in Columbus on Wednesday.
“Initially I was going to practice and the other coaches talked me into an optional,” relates Caps coach Adam Oates. “We’ve got a lot of hockey in a short span of time; four games in five and a half days and seven in 11. Sometimes after a win you want to practice because the guys are feeling pretty good and we’re on the road. But I’ve got to agree with them that rest is more important. So we made it optional for guys, their call.”
Washington had scored a grand total of just eight goals during the life of a seven-game losing streak, so piling up 10 tallies in two games has been more than welcome.
Captain Alex Ovechkin scored three of those goals in the last two games, defensemen netted four of them and ostensible fourth-liners Jay Beagle and Casey Wellman also contributed, leaving most of Washington’s top forwards still mired in a scoring slump. Troy Brouwer notched his 10th goal of the season on a Caps’ power play in the win over the Sabres, but the Caps need more from their top nine forwards, particularly in five-on-five play.
“I think we’ve just got to stay loose,” says Fehr. “I think when you start missing good opportunities, it starts to snowball on you and you start squeezing the stick a little bit. We have guys who have scored a lot of goals in this league and we just need to remember that. When we get our opportunities, we’ve got to bear down and try to score. You can blame it on hot goalies all you want, but at the end of the day we’re getting paid to score goals and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Eight Washington forwards – Ovechkin, Brouwer, Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom, Jason Chimera, Martin Erat, Mikhail Grabovski and Brooks Laich – have reached the 20-goal level previously in the NHL and Joel Ward and Marcus Johansson have shown the ability to score somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 goals a season. But that group of 10 forwards has combined to score just 16 even-strength goals in Washington’s last 15 games.
Ovechkin has scored six and Chimera three to account for more than half of those 16 even-strength strikes. The Caps are just 4-7-4 in those 15 games. Washington’s possession game has taken a turn for the better over the last month, but it hasn’t led to the offensive consistency you might expect.
“First of all,” begins Oates, “‘open things up’ is a phrase that we would never say. Ever. We’ve got our defense involved, yeah. That’s hockey nowadays. Every team puts five guys in front of [the opposition’s] goalie. So your defense has to be involved.
“I would say there is one [key] thing for sure. As a threesome, as a line, all three guys have got to be synchronized. It’s hard for one guy to do the job nowadays, it really is. All three guys have got to be there and they’ve got to be dirtier. We’ve got to get a little bit more traffic.”
Columbus recently won eight straight games, including that aforementioned 5-1 win over the Capitals here on Jan. 17. But the Jackets have now dropped three in a row, with Tuesday night’s 3-2 home ice loss to Ottawa being the most recent setback. Columbus had won five straight games at Nationwide, but it has lost its last two home games to Buffalo and Ottawa.
The Jackets are 12-for-45 (26.7%) on the power play since the turn of the calendar. More than a quarter (12 of 47) of the team’s goals this month have come on the power play. Columbus was 2-for-4 with the extra man against the Capitals in Washington’s previous visit here a dozen days ago.
The Capitals won the first two games of the season between the two teams. Those two games were both played in Washington and both during the first six weeks of the season. The Caps struggled in their trip to Columbus earlier this month, a game that came in the midst of Washington’s seven-game losing spiral (0-5-2).
“If you look at the game when we played here 10 days ago,” says Oates, “we had three Grade A [scoring chances] in the first 10 minutes. [Troy Brouwer] was in alone, [Dmitry Orlov] was in alone, we had a power play and had two great chances. They’ve got a good goalie over there and he stoned us.”
Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is 7-2 with a shutout, a 2.34 GAA and a .925 save pct. this month. The Caps scored once on 27 shots against him in the Jan. 17 game, but beat him for a combined total of eight goals in the two wins in the District earlier this season.
“We can’t get out of our game,” says Oates. “If we score goals, great. If we don’t, we’ve got to be prepared to grind it out. They’re a grinding team, and they’ve had a lot of success lately so they’re playing with a lot of confidence. And we’ve just got to be ready to match that.”
“They’re a really fast team, so that’s something we obviously have to be ready for. I don’t think we were completely ready for what they brought to the table in the first period the last time we played them, and we weren’t able to come back."