In years past, even for a mid January game, had both the Hawks and Capitals been carrying the two longest current winning streaks in the league (Caps at 7, Hawks at 4) there would be such a clamor over yet another POTENTIAL STANLEY CUP FINAL MATCHUP that it’d be deafening. But with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild on an inexorable collision course for June, it seems that tonight’s game in DC is simply old news to most.
The story with the Capitals is the same as it’s been for the last three years under Barry Trotz. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are still awesome even if the overall production has dropped a little, as Ovechkin is still on pace for 42 goals this season, and just notched his 1000th and 1001st career points against the Penguins on Wednesday. American Hero Timothy Leif rides shotgun on the right side, and he’s only slightly less annoying in the eastern conference. On the second line, Evgeny Kuznetsov is fighting the Percentage Dragon right now with only five goals, but is only shooting 6.3% as opposed to last year’s 10. He’s still a dynamic player with incredible vision, and having the steady presence of Analytics Hall Of Famer Justin Williams on his wing certainly helps. But where the Caps really have taken strides is their bottom six, where Lars Eller has slotted in incredibly well as a 3rd scoring center between hulking behemoth Andre Burakovsky and former first rounder Brett Connolly, who this publication called for in the off season and is sporting a cool 55.6% share at the moment. With Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik now relegated to the fourth line along with in sewer vermin Tom Wilson in the 3-and-1 forward template, the Caps still boast as complete a lineup as can be found in a flat salary capped NHL.
On the blue line, this might be their last ride together as free agency approaches, but Karl Alzner and John Carlson have made for one of the most quietly reliable pairings in the league, both capable of taking top assignments and driving play. Carlson in particular has one of the best breakout passes in the game. Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen make for a slightly redundant pairing as both want to get involved offensively, but Orlov will occasionally get caught chasing big hits, ones that he is more than capable of delivering. Brooks Orpik is not getting any faster at 36 which is why he’s now relegated to the third pairing despite making $5.5 million a year until he is 38. Nate Schmidt is most certainly a third pairing defenseman on the Washington Capitals.
In net, of course Braden Holtby will be starting, because Barry Trotz sure as shit isn’t going to start anyone else unless he absolutely has to. To his credit, Holtby isn’t slowing down in the least, improving upon his Vezina winning .922 last year with a .932 this season, and an unimpeachable .945 at evens. In the week in which the Caps played four games, Holtby has allowed only three goals total, and posted two shutouts. He’s at the absolute top of his game right now. But it’s mid January, which is right around where things turned for him last year, as tonight will be his 34th game and he had played 35 by the end of 1/14/16. In the final three months of the season, Holtby sported a far more human .910, which indicates he is subject to overuse.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, they have not won in Washington, indoors or out, since January of 2006, when both Duncan Keith and Alex Ovechkin were rookies. The Hawks had not won in 24 days prior to that game, and blew a 3 goal lead in regulation only for Kyle Calder to play the hero and get Adam Munro the win. And with Joel Quenneville getting Michal Rozsival into the lineup tonight for the first time in nearly three weeks on the road and against as deep a forward group as there is in the league, that streak probably isn’t going to end tonight.
Without Marcus Kruger in the lineup and with Passenger 57 and Rozsival in it, the Hawks are simply outmatched and don’t have enough to counter whatever matchup Trotz wants to dictate tonight. And with Holtby playing as well as he is, it’s basically going to come down to Corey Crawford outdueling him if only for a night. And with a four point night coming up at home against the Wild who will never lose again under the genius guidance of Bruce Boudreau, the Hawks can ill-afford to concede even a road non-conference game in January if they hope to have enough home ice for it to matter come April. Let’s go Hawks.