Game Preview: Capitals @ Blue Jackets

17545223_10155266483434467_3614257543759865813_oThe Capitals battle the Columbus Blue Jackets  Sunday, April 2, at Nationwide Arena; 6 p.m. puck drop is on CSN+.  A preview of this Metropolitan division showdown follows. 

Here are some points you need to know ahead of Sunday’s Capitals @ Blue Jackets contest:

As the Capitals strive to finish first in the Metropolitan Division and secure home ice advantage in the playoffs, a regulation loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday wouldn’t sink the Caps — they would still control their own destiny — but it would lead to a more challenging path and little breathing room, while a win or even a standings point would help the Caps’ cause. More on this at the end of the preview.

Since the Washington Capitals and the Columbus Blue Jackets squared off 10 days ago, the Jackets have obtained five out of a possible eight points with a 2-1-1 record.  Their wins relied on dominant performances from goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky with just enough offense, from a wide range of contributors, to get the job done.

Here’s a brief rundown of Blue Jacket players with their jersey/sweater number in parentheses:

A key to the Blue Jackets’ resurgence this season starts with goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72), who is the odds-on favorite to win this season’s Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) over Braden Holtby and other quality goaltenders. Bobrovsky is at or near the top of goaltending statistics: save percentage (first), goals-against average (first), wins (first) and shutouts (tied for second).  Joonas Korpisalo (70) serves as the backup.

While Jackets Head Coach John Tortorella has been mixing the lineup in front of the netminder, he recently returned to going with the most common even-strength selections:

Nick Foligno (71) – Alexander Wennberg (10) – Brandon Saad (20)
Boone Jenner (38) – Brandon Dubinsky (17) – Cam Atkinson (13)
Matt Calvert (11) – William Karlsson (25) – Josh Anderson (34)
Scott Hartnell (43) – Lukas Sedlak (45) – Sam Gagner (89)

Both Calvert and Sedlak returned last month from injured reserve; while they and other Jackets were injured (Hartnell at first in mid-February), AHL call-up Oliver Bjorkstrand (28) did very well on the first and fourth lines.  As it so happened, Bjorkstrand himself recently got injured while being boarded, as shown in this video of the play.

Tortorella has said that Bjorkstrand will get re-inserted into the lineup as soon as he returns.  Bjorkstrand played in 16 straight games, during which Columbus posted a record of 12-3-1, and he contributed six goals and four assists; from his injury forward, the Blue Jackets are 2-2-2.  Some news sources project Bjorkstrand’s return on Sunday against the Capitals.

Defensive line pairings are:
Zach Werenski (8) – Seth Jones (3)
Jack Johnson (7) – David Savard (58)
Kyle Quincey (26) – Markus Nutivaara (65) or Scott Harrington (54)

At the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets acquired Quincey from the New Jersey Devils, and winger Lauri Korpikoski (29) from the Dallas Stars.  Quincey has stepped in for Ryan Murray, who broke his hand in a manner similar to that of the Capitals’ Andre Burakovsky.  Quincey has fit in well in Murray’s absence.  Murray is expected to return just as the postseason gets underway.

Defensively, the Blue Jackets are sound; they like to actively disrupt the opponents’ offensive flow with stick checking and can crowd the blue line.  The Jackets’ challenge of late is to find better offensive rhythm from its scoring leaders. As Tortorella has said: “Our best players need to play better.”  Bjorkstrand may help galvanize the team’s production, too.  Dubinsky has three points against the Caps this season, while five other Jackets have two points each: Atkinson, Foligno, Gagner, Wennberg and Werenski.

This season, the Blue Jackets have set and continue to add to franchise records for wins and standing points in a season (previous records were 43 and 93, respectively).  They were the second team to clinch a playoff spot this NHL season.

The Blue Jackets are one of two NHL clubs that have yet to win a playoff series; they have qualified for the playoffs twice in their previous 15 seasons.

To see how statistically close the Blue Jackets and Capitals are this season, take a look at this side-by-side comparison through Friday’s results:

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*Includes Shattenkirk, who has scored his goals with the St. Louis Blues this season. For more on the Blue Jackets, please read this team profile.

The Jackets are four standings points behind the Capitals, with five games remaining for each team.

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The Washington Capitals started March 3-4-1 before winning six straight games.  The Capitals ended their six-game win streak Friday, with a 6-3 loss to the Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes were bolstered by braces from both Christian Dvorak and Alexander Burmistrov and a strong 45-save performance from backup goaltender Louis Domingue; Max Domi had a sublime assist on Burmistov’s second goal, too.  With that said, the Capitals didn’t do themselves any favors with sluggish play in the first period. Just like the game against the Stars earlier this month, when Brooks Orpik, Nicklas Backstrom and Dmitry Orlov made uncharacteristic errors that led to goals, this time it was Andre Burakovsky, Kevin Shattenkirk and Lars Eller’s turn; Jay Beagle and Justin Williams contributed additional, costly puck possession decisions in subsequent periods.

In addition to eliminating such outbreaks of poor puck possession and team defense, the Capitals need to improve their five-on-five play in general, and the third line needs to regain their form from earlier in the year.  Once Burakovsky returned from injury, some chemistry was spotted, but the line’s production has dropped off.  While the Capitals need to improve their play in these areas, the faults should be placed in the context of a six-game winning streak recently concluding.

A puck hit Tom Wilson’s knee late in the Arizona game; his status should be checked game day.  Evgeny Kuznetsov and Williams also were injured in the game, but they are expected to be able to play Sunday.  Paul Carey would step in if required.

Only the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Jackets have a better road record than the Capitals this season.  While the Capitals are more focused on winning games and preparing for the playoffs than personal accolades, here’s a status on some individual milestones:

Backstrom is tied for fourth in the NHL’s points race battle, eight behind Edmonton Oiler Connor McDavid and three behind the Oilers’ 20-year-old forward for the league lead in assists. Backstrom is one goal shy of passing Bobby Carpenter for eighth place on the franchise goals list.

Alex Ovechkin is two goals shy of tying the great Guy Lafleur for 25th all-time.

Caps have three players in the NHL’s plus-minus top ten: Orpik is tied for second at +32; Orlov is in sixth place at +29; and T. J. Oshie is in seventh at +27.  Karl Alzner remains two assists shy of 100 with the Capitals, which would be a pleasant milestone to hit before this season ends.

Holtby remains a top performer in goals-against average (2nd), wins (2nd), save percentage (6th) and shutouts (1st).

Sunday will be the fifth and final game between the Capitals and Jackets in the 2016-17 regular season.

If the Capitals pick up a standings point in Sunday’s game, they win the third tie-breaker over Jackets in case they end up tied on standing points and regulation and overtime wins (ROW).  The Capitals already hold this tiebreaker, as well as the ROW tie-breaker, over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Caps-Jackets season series is deadlocked, each holding a 2-1-1 record; whoever wins Sunday’s game will determine the season series winner.  However, it’s important to note that the Jackets’ first regulation win does not count if playoff tie-breakers need to be employed; as emphasized above, the Capitals will win the head-to-head third tie-breaker if they pick up a single standings point on Sunday.  On the other hand, if the Jackets win in regulation on Sunday, the two teams willl be even on the head-to-head tiebreaker, and if they end up tied on standing points and ROW at the end of the season, the difference in goal differential, the fourth tie-breaker, would then determine which team holds the superior record.  Currently, the Capitals hold a +15 advantage.

To understand what different game outcomes would mean for the remainder of the Capitals’ regular season schedule, you can read more about them here.

Less significant but still noteworthy, the Capitals are fending off the Jackets for the William M. Jennings Trophy (fewest goals allowed); the Caps’ lead has shrunk to one, however: 176 goals allowed to the Jackets’ 177.

In the last Capitals-Jackets meeting, on March 23rd, the Blue Jackets stole a point with a 2-1 overtime loss; the Jackets were playing their second game in as many nights, while the Caps had fresh legs.  The Capitals’ goal in regulation to tie it up resulted from the strong play of Williams, Marcus Johansson and Orlov.  Holtby blanked the Jackets in the shootout, leaving the Caps needing only Oshie’s one-on-one excellence (not taking that for granted) to deliver the win.  Here are that game’s highlights:

After Sunday, the Capitals have one game remaining on their road trip, at the Toronto Maple Leafs, while the Jackets head to Pittsburgh to face the Penguins.  Both games are being played Tuesday evening.

The Caps finish the regular season with two games at home, both the second game of back-to-backs, with a trip to Beantown sandwiched in between.

Let’s hope that our weekend ends better than it began!

Profile of this potential playoff opponent: 
These Jackets are Tailor-Made for a Long Playoff Run: A Look At the Columbus Blue Jackets

The last game preview between Caps and Jackets:
Game Preview: Blue Jackets @ Capitals

What each potential outcome of the April 2nd Caps-Jackets game would mean for the Caps:
Capitals’ Magic Numbers

By Tim Foisie


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