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Behind Enemy Lines: Washington Capitals still the class of the NHL

Hurricanes travel to D.C. to take on the red-hot Capitals

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that escalated quickly.

After a first quarter of the season which could be described as middling for last season’s Metropolitan Division champions, the Washington Capitals have returned to last season’s form with absolute vengeance, compiling a 16-2-1 record in their last 19 games. That stretch also includes a 6-1 waxing of the Hurricanes on January 23rd. During this torrid stretch, starting netminder Braden Holtby has been a sterling 12-0-1, with an amazing .931 save percentage and 1.77 goals against average.

Sustained excellence in the net is a surefire way to produce sustained success in the win column, and this recent run by the Capitals only underlines that point. But outside of tremendous goaltending, the Capitals have sparked what has become one of the league’s strongest attacks, as they rank third in the NHL with 175 goals. Since the All-Star break, Nicklas Backstrom has netted at least one point in each game and has a total of six points in the four games played. Evgeny Kuznetsov has added five points, and Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie have each scored a pair of goals to drive the Capitals’ offensive machine.

One of the Capitals’ hallmarks this season has been the ability to jump out ahead of their opponents. The Caps maintain a healthy 56-23 scoring advantage against their opponents in the first period this season, and hold a 24-4-2 record when leading after one period. If you plan to stick with the Caps, you’d better come out playing some of your best hockey early. When the Caps get a team down, they prey on over-aggressiveness necessitated by trailing such a high-powered opponent. Neutral zone turnovers against this speedy and skilled group have a way of making it into the back of your net more times than not.

One of the more fortunate aspects to this resurgent Capitals run has been the remarkable health of the team. They are currently not without any of their regular pieces due to injury, which has no doubt been a factor in their collecting 78 points and a 36-11-6 record, which is tops in the NHL. No doubt that many Capitals fans are simply holding their breath until playoff time comes around, as they hope their good fortune continues into April and beyond.

For tonight’s game, expect to see Braden Holtby in the net, as backup Philipp Grubauer started and won on Sunday afternoon. The Hurricanes are likely to get backup goalie Eddie Lack back into the lineup tonight for the first time since November, but it remains to be seen how he responds to getting put back into the net on the road against the NHL’s hottest team.

What to Watch For

  • Aside from the aforementioned Canes goalie decision, it appears that coach Bill Peters is mixing his defensive pairings. Jaccob Slavin will go with Justin Faulk and Ron Hainsey will slot in with Brett Pesce. This is likely in an attempt to get the swifter Slavin and Faulk tandem on against the Ovechkin line as often as possible.
  • Who scores first? The first goal is critical, as the Caps are 30-6-2 this season when scoring first.
  • Reducing chances will be crucial. If Carolina has it’s way, tonight’s game might be less entertaining expected in terms of highlight plays, but should provide a greater chance at a positive outcome for the Canes. Boring is good tonight for the Canes. An up and down game is sure to end with the superior firepower of the Caps out on top.