Photo: Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals will host the Nashville Predators on Thursday night for the final meeting between the two teams this season. The Predators defeated the Capitals 6-3 in the first meeting of the season back on November 14 at Bridgestone Arena. The game will be televised on NBC Sports Washington and NBC Sports Network at 7 PM.
After coming within two wins from the franchise’s first Stanley Cup last season, the Predators are showing that their magical run last year was no fluke. This season, the Predators are first in the league with 113 points and are arguably the Stanley Cup favorite heading into the playoffs.
The Predators’ 206 goals against rank third in the league this season, only behind the Los Angeles Kings (195) and the Boston Bruins (205), and their +53 goal differential ranks fourth. The Predators also have four defensemen with at least 30 points this season: P.K. Subban (58); captain Roman Josi (51); Mattias Ekholm (34); and Ryan Ellis (30), despite missing 38 games to start the season.
Former-Capitals’ draft pick Filip Forsberg leads the Predators with 61 points, three away from his career-high and in 17 fewer games. The young Swedish winger is tied for second on the team in goals with forwards Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith. Ahead of Forsberg for the team goal-scoring lead is Viktor Arvidsson, who has 29 goals after scoring 30 last season.
The Predators wrap up a three-game road trip on Thursday night in the nation’s capital. Nashville is 1-1-0 on their journey so far, beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday before falling to the Florida Panthers 2-1 at BB&T Center last night.
The Predators can also clinch the Central Division and the Western Conference with a win on Thursday. They are three points up on the Winnipeg Jets and four up on the Vegas Golden Knights for the Western Conference lead with each team playing 80 games.
Pekka Rinne will start for the Predators. His play this season has made him the Vezina Trophy favorite; he is 41-13-4 with a save percentage of .927 and a goals-against average of 2.32, each of which are the sixth best in the league. His 41 wins rank third best in the NHL. Lifetime against Washington, he is 4-1-0 with a save percentage of .915 and a goals-against average of 2.40.
The Capitals have already wrapped up their third consecutive Metropolitan Division title and cannot change their playoff seeding with two games remaining. Washington has won seven of their last eight and are coming off of a sweep of their final set of back-to-backs and road trip. The Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 at PPG Paints Arena on Sunday night before defeating the St. Louis Blues 4-2 at Scottrade Center on Monday night. Monday’s win marked their fifth straight road victory, a season high.
The Capitals will start a short two-game homestand to end the season on Thursday night and really a four-game homestand because they have home-ice advantage for Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs next week. It’s unknown who the Capitals will play next week yet but expect it to either be one of the following three teams: the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, or Columbus Blue Jackets. The Capitals host the Devils on Saturday to wrap up the regular season.
The Capitals could be without captain Alex Ovechkin, who took a maintenance day on Wednesday after getting hit in Monday’s 4-2 win over the Blues. He returned to play and scored an empty net goal but the Capitals will be extra cautious with the NHL league-leader in goals with 46 to make sure that he is healthy for the playoffs next week. They will determine if he’s good to go against the Predators on Thursday. Center Jay Beagle, who left Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Penguins, will miss his second straight game with an upper-body injury. He is labeled as day-to-day.
The Capitals signed Brian Pinho to a two-year entry-level contract on Wednesday. The 21-year old center tallied 12 points and 20 assists in 40 games at the University of Rhode Island this season. The team also recalled defenseman Madison Bowey and center Travis Boyd, who will likely play Thursday night, from the Hershey Bears on Tuesday. Bowey, 22, recorded two goals and eight points in nine games with the Bears after the Capitals acquired defensemen Jakub Jerabek from the Montreal Canadiens and Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline. The two trades forced Bowey to go down to Hershey since he is waiver exempt. In 51 games with Washington, Bowey had 12 assists, tied for ninth among rookie defenseman. Boyd, 24, was second on the Bears with 47 points (15 goals) in 61 games. In seven games with Washington this season, Boyd tallied an assist.
Capitals’ coach Barry Trotz said the team will split the final two games of the regular season but did not name a starter for Thursday night’s game. Philipp Grubauer is 15-9-3 with a save percentage of .925 and a goals-against average of 2.29 this season and is 0-1-0 in two appearances against Nashville in his career with a save percentage of .871 and a goals-against average of 3.07. He has won 11 of his past 13 starts and is 15-7-2 in his last 30 appearances with a 1.99 goals against average and a .935 save percentage, which is the lowest goals-against average and the highest save percentage among goaltenders with at least 30 appearances during that time frame. He made 37 saves the Capitals’ 3-1 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday. Braden Holtby has won five of his last seven appearances and is 33-16-4 with a save percentage of .908 and a goals-against average of 2.99. He was pulled in the Capitals’ 6-3 in Nashville on November 14, giving up six goals on 25 shots, and is 3-2-1 with a save percentage of .880 and a goals-against average of 3.56 in his career against the Predators. Holtby made 34 saves in the Caps’ 4-2 win in St. Louis on Monday. Whoever starts Thursday night sits against the Devils on Saturday.
-This season, the Capitals are 14-6-0 with Kempny in the lineup and 8-2-0 with Jerabek in the lineup. Since Kempny made his Capitals debut on Feb. 22, Washington has allowed second-fewest goals (52) in the Eastern Conference (Columbus Blue Jackets: 51).
–Matt Niskanen is set to play in his 800th career game tonight against the Nashville Predators. Niskanen is one point shy of 30 points (seven goals), despite missing 14 games due to injury. That would mark the fifth-consecutive season Niskanen would reach the 30 point mark.
–Dmitry Orlov scored a goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 1, marking his 10th goal of the year, a new career high. Over the last three seasons, Orlov’s 93 points (24 goals) rank first among Russian-born defensemen.
-Since March 10, the Capitals have three players ranked in the top-25 in scoring (Nicklas Backstrom, tied for third, 4 goals, 15 assists, 19 points; Evgeny Kuznetsov, tied for 13th, 5 goals, 10 assists, 15 points; John Carlson, tied for 24th, 3 goals, 10 assists, 13 points). The Capitals are one of three teams with three players ranked in the top-25 in points since March 10 (Arizona Coyotes, Toronto Maple Leafs).
A Look Back in Time
After falling 1-0 early in the second period on March 18, 2016 to the Predators, the Capitals struck for four unanswered goals for a 4-1 win. The loss was Nashville’s second in a span of 18 games. Daniel Winnik scored twice for the Capitals, his first two career goals with Washington, and T.J. Oshie and Andre Burakovsky each scored once. Evgeny Kuznetsov had three assists, including two beautiful passes: one from behind the net to set up Oshie and the other with a fake slap pass to Winnik. Holtby made 20 saves in the win.
By Harrison Brown