It’s February 1 and some NHL players have recently returned home from a weekend where they got to see old pals and rivals, reminisce with teammates and coaches, and salute the fans and Hall of Famers of the game. That hockey player is a 2017 NHL All-Star. Now, he has rejoined his respective team and is focused on the dash to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Suddenly, every game is scrutinized or praised, and the margin for error is small, especially if his team is on the bubble.
All-Stars Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby have the leisure of playing for the best team in the NHL, the Washington Capitals. Washington leads the talented Eastern Conference with 72 points and a 34-11-6 record. A 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Thursday cushioned a four-point lead in the conference standings. As the Capitals embark on the final stretch of the season, they will face hungry opponents intent on proving themselves and climbing the standings. Washington plays six games in the first two weeks of February. The following five games feature three teams stationed in the playoffs while the Carolina Hurricanes are five points behind and the Detroit Red Wings are seven points out.
Visiting Northern Neighbors
The Capitals travel north of the border to face the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 4. Both have commanded their divisions over the majority of this season. Montreal outshines opponents in the Atlantic Division and similar to the Capitals, the Canadiens dominate at home. Montreal’s home record is 18-5-3. On the road, the Capitals are 14-6-5 and have won six of their last 10. The Canadiens held Washington to a season-low 21 shots on Dec. 17 to win 2-1 at the Verizon Center. The Capitals – rolling in their nine-game winning streak – hounded Montreal’s net to mark a 4-1 win one month later. The Capitals have a couple of days off before facing Montreal while the Habs played the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.
Here’s a look at some statistics for both the Canadiens and Capitals, based on their previous matchups against each other this season:
|vs. MON 2016-17|
vs. MON 2016-17
vs. WSH 2016-17
vs. WSH 2016-17
‘Home on the Range’
The Capitals play their following four games at home. Verizon Center is a rocking place this year and Washington is 20-5-1 at home and has scored first 16 times playing in front of the home crowd. The Los Angeles Kings, Hurricanes, Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks visit the nation’s capital between Feb 5 and Feb 11. All of these teams are below .500 on the road. Regardless, they play well enough overall to contend for a postseason berth. Opposition becomes desperate and physical when the schedule is chopped down to nearly 30 games.
Jeff Carter and the Kings visit Ovechkin and company in a matinee showdown on Feb. 5. An intimidating team that can get hot as easily as they can get cold, the Kings are picking up their pace at the right time. Los Angeles allowed two goals or less in four straight victories heading into the weekend. Washington will either get an energized opponent or one looking to recover based on the outcome of Los Angeles’s game against the Flyers on Saturday.
Feb. 7 brings the Finnish dynamo, Sebastian Aho, to the Verizon Center. Aho and the Hurricanes are a bubble team in the playoff race. Carolina is struggling to score recently, which is the opposite of the Capitals. Carolina posted two goals or less until defeating Philadelphia in 5-1 fashion on Jan. 31. Meanwhile, the Capitals are roaring on the offensive side of the puck — they have posted 52 goals 11 games. The Hurricanes are familiar with playing against Washington when they are streamlining. Twelve Capitals collected a point in a 6-1 victory over Carolina in their last meeting on Jan. 23.
Washington’s next opponent is born out of the ‘Original Six’ era. Detroit is seven points out of a playoff berth despite being last in the Eastern Conference. Standings seem to change with every game, and six teams are jousting for the second wild card position. Detroit is certainly feeling the absence of Pavel Datsyuk, who went to play in native Russia. Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall are both 36-years-old and are not getting enough support from the younger members of the team. Conversely, Washington seems to be better with age. Ovechkin has scored 14.9 percent of the Capitals’ goals this year — the lowest number in the past five years. Swedish teammate Nicklas Backstrom isn’t number one on the Capitals’ scoring chart. Detroit is in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 25 years. Washington is likely going to challenge for the Stanley Cup for the 10th time in nine years. When these teams meet next week, the Capitals are going to want to take the win in their yard.
Here’s a look at how Ovechkin’s goals relative to the rest of the Capitals’ scoring, ranks this year when compared to the four previous seasons:
|NAME||SEASON||GOALS SCORED||TEAM GOALS SCORED||GOALS PERCENTAGE|
Next week closes with a visit from another California team — the Anaheim Ducks. It will be the fifth road game for the Ducks during their six-game road trip as they face the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres before dropping the puck at Verizon Center on Feb. 11. Given the amount of travel for the Ducks, Washington might face an exhausted hockey team by that point. The Capitals have the benefit of playing four games at the Verizon Center leading up to the contest and they thrive on home ice.
Get Another One Boys
Washington might never have as deep a roster as they have now. Ovechkin is surrounded by a supporting cast that is eager to win now. As I watched Washington play against the Bruins last night, I noticed the determination in the players. Nobody celebrated too much when they scored. Mentally saying ‘alright, let’s get another one’ two months before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin suggests they are ready for the challenges teams will bring on a nightly basis.
Michael Mazzuca graduated from The University of Scranton with a degree in journalism and electronic media. Mike began writing for The Hockey Writers in December 2016. He has written for the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins as well as the Rockland Boulders independent baseball team. Follow him on Twitter at @MazzucaMike.