September 21, 2019

Caps in Advance: Week 25

As Alexander Ovechkin goes, so too do the Washington Capitals, and Ovechkin has been going quite nicely as of late. Ovechkin is in the midst of a five-game goal scoring streak, potting at least one goal per game and seven in total over that span. After a disappointingly slow start to the season, Washington’s captain now has a shot at 40 goals (he’s currently tied with Toronto’s Phil Kessel for 4th in the NHL in goals, with 36) and an outside chance at 70 points.

Thanks in part to Ovechkin’s scoring streak, Washington has earned points in its past four games, bookending a shootout and overtime loss with a pair of dominating wins against Western Conference foes. Now, the Caps have just six games left in their regular season and the possibility of postseason participation still very much in doubt.

For the final two weeks of the regular season, Washington will alternate home and away games against Eastern Conference opponents: three from the Northeast Division, two from the Southeast, and one from the Atlantic, in that order. Up this week is the three-spot against Northeast foes, starting off with one game that will have major playoff ramifications.

TUESDAY, MARCH 27 v. BUFFALO SABRES
7:00 pm, Verizon Center
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 38-30-8, 84 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
Buffalo Sabres: 37-29-10, 84 points, 3rd in Northeast Division, 9th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-2-0

This Tuesday night game will certainly be Washington’s most important game to date, and may very well prove to be the make-or-break moment of the season. The Capitals and Sabres are tied in the Eastern Conference with 84 points after 76 games. Washington holds the first standings tiebreaker, with 36 regulation or overtime wins to Buffalo’s 30, and right now that is the difference between making the playoffs and going golfing the second week of April.

Buffalo has been clutch down the stretch to even warrant mention in the playoff discussion. The Sabres are an astounding 13-2-4 in their past 19 games, and haven’t lost two games in a row in regulation since the middle of February. Things won’t be easy going for Buffalo in their final six games, though, as the Sabres play four of those six (including Tuesday night at Washington) on the road, including one in Toronto on the second half of a back-to-back  after playing the previous night at home against the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins.

Leading Buffalo in their search for the second season is star netminder Ryan Miller (2.48 GAA, .917 Save%), who is on pace for his second-best NHL season statistically. Miller has started his team’s past 18 games, as the Sabres have largely ignored backup Jhonas Enroth in favor of their starter and workhorse. With two full days of rest prior to Tuesday night’s game, Miller will be fully rested and ready to perform, and it will be a monumental task for the Caps to pierce his defenses.

THURSDAY, MARCH 29 @ BOSTON BRUINS
7:00 pm, TD Garden
TV: NHL-N, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 38-30-8, 84 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
Boston Bruins: 44-28-3, 91 points, 1st in Northeast Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 2-1-0

For much of the season regarded a contender for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins have demonstrated themselves to be eminently beatable late in the season. Boston sits 4th in the conference in terms of actual points earned, and a few weeks ago briefly slipped behind the Ottawa Senators into second place in their division. Since then the B’s have recovered nicely, and with four wins in their past five games now rest comfortably again atop the Northeast and in the playoff picture.

Much like Miller on the Sabres, Boston’s Tim Thomas (32 wins, 2.40 GAA, .920 Save%) has been the team’s mainstay in net this season. Thomas’s efforts have been markedly more ambivalent lately, as the reigning Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe Award winner is only 6-6-0 in his past 12 starts. Also slumping is center David Krejci, who hasn’t scored since March 11, a seven-game span. One unexpected player picking up the slack on Boston is captain Zdeno Chara, better known for his imposing physicality. Chara has scored three of his 12 goals on the season in the past four games, giving him double-digit goals for the eighth time in his past 10 NHL seasons.

SATURDAY, MARCH 31 v. MONTREAL CANADIENS
7:00 pm, Verizon Center
TV: CBC, RDS, NHL-N, CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 38-30-8, 84 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
Montreal Canadiens: 29-34-13, 71 points, 5th in Northeast Division, 15th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 3-0-0

A few days after facing Boston, the Capitals will be salivating at the opportunity to face the Montreal Canadiens. Washington has outscored the Habs 10-1 in their three games so far this season, including a shutout streak lasting 123:42. Michal Neuvirth earned two of those wins, and will therefore likely earn the start Saturday night as well. Neuvirth has played fair during Washington’s playoff push – he has a 5-3-2 record, 2.65 GAA, and .906 Save% in his past 10 games – but has allowed four goals in four of his past five starts. Neuvirth was supplanted last week by call-up Braden Holtby, whose 2-1 shootout loss to Philadelphia and 3-0 shutout of Minnesota bracketed Neuvirth’s 4-3 overtime loss at home to the Winnipeg Jets, a game in which the Caps led 3-0 early in the second period.

Despite its forgetttable season, there have been a few offensive highlights for Montreal, which boasts two 30-goal scorers: Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. 2011-12 is the second career 30+ goal season for Cole, while Pacioretty’s previous career high was 14 markers in 52 games last season. The two players’ scoring output has been diametrically opposite recently, though. Pacioretty hasn’t scored in eight games, while Cole has seven goals in the same span, including a natural hat trick completed just 5:41 into the game on Saturday night against Ottawa.

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