The league's best team finally touches down in Music City.
Barry Trotz and the Washington Capitals will start a three-game road trip against the Nashville Predators, hoping to steamroll through their Central-heavy schedule like they've done all year against just about every team.
Meanwhile, Nashville is out to build off their obliteration of the Sharks as they finish their long homestand. They have a tough task ahead of them tonight.
The Washington Capitals
It took a blizzard and an All-Star break to slow down the Capitals, which means they've only won three of their last five games.
Their numbers are ridiculous this year. Washington recahed 80 points with Sunday's win against the Flyers, and still haven't lost 10 regulation games yet. They've scored the second most goals in the NHL while allowing the fewest, and sport a ridiculous +54 goal differential. (Probably +52, since the NHL counts shootout wins as goals for some reason.) Both special teams are deadly and eight players have reached double-digit goal totals.
Remember, games are being won despite losing both their third-line center options in Jay Beagle and then Marcus Johansson, and playing a time without their top defensive pairing. John Carlson has since returned to the lineup, but Brooks Orpik is still out. Neither Beagle, Orpik or Johansson will play tonight.
Oh, they also have games in hand on 20 other teams, including five on the second place Chicago Blackhawks.
Then there's Braden Holtby. The Vezina candidate is having a career year after having a career year last season. Consider he has more wins by himself than Nashville has as a team and he's sporting a .929 Sv%, tied with Corey Schneider, Thomas Greiss and James Reimer. Only Schneider has played more games.
It's not enough that the Capitals are scoring oodles of goals against their opponents, Holtby is straight slamming the door on them as well. In the handful of games where Washington hasn't played well this year, #70 is more often than not bailing them out and keeping the score from getting out of control.
No surprise that Alex Ovechkin leads the team in goals, potting his 30th of the year on Sunday. It brought him within two of league leader Patrick Kane, but also made Ovechkin just the third player in NHL history to record 11-straight 30-goal seasons to start a career. The other two were Mike Gartner (13) and Wayne Gretzky (15).
But it's another Russian superstar who is leading the Caps in points. Evgeny Kuznetsov is having a breakout year, already with 53 points on the campaign. He's good enough to be a 1C on almost any team, but his emergence is providing DC with a scary one-two punch of him and Nicklas Backstrom. With Johansson and Beagle healthy and the arrival of Mike Richards, that's center depth that many can't match.
Of course, we all know it doesn't matter what Washington does in the regular season. It's all about what happens in April and (hopefully) May and June.
If you run into any Caps fans at the arena tonight, alternate between giving them friendly hugs and respecting their personal space. Many are likely exploding with jubilation with how this season has unfolded so far, yet are every so often crippled with fear convulsions when they think about what the playoffs might hold.
The Nashville Predators
The penalty killers are going to have their hands full tonight.
Despite not scoring a power play goal since January 19th (0-17 over five games), the Caps are still the number one power play in the league. Barely. The loss of Marcus Johansson has left a hole on the first PP unit, as the Swedish center usually takes responsibility for entering the zone with the puck and starting the play. His absence has led to awful entries the past few games, making it hard to get anything going.
Until recently, Nashville had enjoyed their longest stretch of penalty killing success this year. In the seven games stretching from January 16th to February 2nd, the Predators killed every one of their opponent's 21 power play opportunities. In the two games after, they've allowed three goals in eight opportunities.
Washington's power play might be slumping right now, but Nashville cannot afford a return to their PK efficiency early in the season. This is a man advantage that ices Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetzov, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson at the same freaking time. You'd think it's just a matter of time before they get going again.
That said, going toe-to-toe on special teams isn't the way to win the game. Washington is top-five in both aspects. Nashville needs to jump on them early, as the Caps have had tough time in first periods since their BlizzStar break. They sport a 5v5 45.7 SACF% in those five games, have been outscored 4-1, and have generally looked lethargic. However, they only get better as the game goes on.
If the Preds can pot a couple against Holtby early, they stand a much better chance at leaving the ice with a victory. Washington is 26-1-0 when scoring first and 29-0-1 when leading after two periods. Yowza. Seeing as how the line combinations Peter Laviolette iced on Saturday worked extremely well, now would be the perfect time to actually keep them together and let them gel.
We may get that wish:
Predators practice lines:— Adam Vingan (@AdamVingan) February 8, 2016
Oh hai, Colin Wilson. It looks like he will be making his first appearance in the Nashville lineup since January 8th.
Things to Lookout For
- The Capitals are the best hockey team you'll see all season. Keep an eye on how fast and clean their breakouts are when they transition from defense to offense. Their cycle game is a thing of beauty.
- Preds fans haven't seen a whole lot of that this year. Passes are always off the mark and inconsistency reigns supreme. If that happens the game will be over quickly, but we know how Jeckyl and Hyde this team is. Which one shows up tonight?
- Michael Latta and Filip Forsberg get another chance to go head to head.
- Austin Waton was drafted 18th overall in 2010, the same year Kuznetsov was selected 26th overall. These two get to go head to head as well.
- After being invisible for most of the year, Andrei Burakovsky has six goals and nine points in his last seven games. The 21-year-old first round pick is making the second line with Kuznetsov and Justin Williams absolutely deadly.
- Nashville unquestionably holds the edge with the first two pairs, but the jury is still out on the three-headed monster of Barret Jackman, Anthony Bitetto and Petter Granberg. The third defensive pair hasn't been a total liability, but they don't provide a warm sense of security either. On Washington's side, Dmitry Orlov and Taylor Chorney have been a welcome surprise with Orpik out. Orlov missed all of last season with a wrist injury, and Chorney was never supposed to get the minutes he's getting now. Both provide solid depth, and it only grows when the team is healthy and current 2D Nate Schmidt is playing bottom minutes.
Orlov with the SCOARLOV. (Assisted by The Burracuda and Evgeny Kuznetsov) pic.twitter.com/hNnMMwqNBf— Ian Oland (@ianoland) February 7, 2016
The Capitals decided to try and pull a Dallas Stars by having a local band record a goal song for them. Darkest Hour's ensuing product was a horrible as it was cheesy. Washington has recently abandoned this anthem in order to return to Iron Maiden' "The Wicker Man." Why they ever went away from it in the first place is a question for the ages.
I'm counting on the good taste of your, the OTF Commenter, to serenade us with your favorite D.C. based bands. I've been on a progressive kick lately, so enjoy some Periphery. Their guitars make riffs that shouldn't be humanly possible.
Sights and Sounds
Normal game time on your normal channels. 7 p.m. Nashville time puck drop on FS-TN and 102.5 The Game.