Photo: Bleedin’ Blues
The Washington Capitals visit the St. Louis Blues for the first of two meetings between the two teams in a span of 11 days. The Capitals won both games against the Blues in the preseason, including a 4-0 shutout in St. Louis on September 25, and have won the past five encounters with the Blues overall. Action from Enterprise Center can be seen on NBC Sports Washington beginning at 8 PM Eastern.
The Capitals begin a three-game road trip and a set of back-to-back games in St. Louis on Thursday. The team will immediately fly to Dallas for a Friday night matchup with the Dallas Stars 24.5 hours following Thursday night’s tilt with the Blues. They will look to bounce back from a 6-3 loss to the Nashville Predators on Monday afternoon, which ended a five-game winning streak. The Capitals have won 16 of their last 20 games.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen will likely return to the lineup after missing the past two games with an upper-body injury. He left the Capitals’ 3-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on December 27 after getting hit by center Clark Bishop up high. Niskanen’s average ice time of 22:19 per game ranks third on the team only behind defensemen John Carlson‘s average of 25:25 per game and Dmitry Orlov‘s average of 22:19 per game. In 36 games this season, Niskanen has posted five goals, 15 points, and a +1 rating.
Captain Alex Ovechkin, who stepped out of the NHL All-Star Game on Wednesday in order to rest for another playoff run, is riding a season-high six-game goal-drought and has only posted two assists in that span. He has been held off of the scoresheet in the past two games. The 32-year-old is one goal away from becoming the first player in the NHL this season to hit the 30-goal plateau. Ovechkin leads the Capitals with 45 points.
The Capitals average 3.55 goals-per-game, the third-highest in the NHL only behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (4.13) and Toronto Maple Leafs (3.69). The team owns five of the top-50 league leaders in terms of point-per-game average among players who have played at least 15 games: Ovechkin (1.18) is 19th, center Nicklas Backstrom (1.16) is 23rd, center Evgeny Kuznetsov (1.06) is 37th, Carlson (1.03) is 39th, and forward Tom Wilson (1.00) is in a seven-way tie for 43rd.
Goaltender Pheonix Copley, who is 9-2-1 with a save percentage of .914, a goals-against average of 2.61, and one shutout this season, will likely start against his former team. The Capitals dealt Copley to the Blues in the trade that landed them forward T.J. Oshie on July 2, 2015, and reacquired him in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade on February 27, 2017. He stopped all 42 shots in the 4-0 preseason shutout in St. Louis on September 25. This will be Copley’s first career start against the Blues in the regular season.
The Blues have been one of the league’s most disappointing teams this season after making a lot of noise in the offseason. Their 34 points are tied for the fewest in the league with the Ottawa Senators, who have played in three more games than the Blues have. They have lost two consecutive games in regulation and are only 9-11-2 on home ice.
After upgrading their forward depth in the offseason, the Blues’ average of 2.76 goals-per-game is tied with the Detroit Red Wings for sixth-worst in the NHL while their average of goals-against per game of 3.30 is the fifth highest in the league. Though, their added forward depth, mostly at center (Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak), has played a big role in helping them sit fifth in the NHL with a win percentage of 52% on faceoffs.
St. Louis plays the fourth game of a five-game homestand on Thursday against the Capitals. They opened it with a 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres in their first game after the NHL’s mandated holiday break but got beat badly by the Pittsburgh Penguins, 6-1, on Saturday before falling to the New York Rangers by a score of 2-1 on Monday after opening their homestand on the right note. They conclude their homestand on Saturday against the New York Islanders before playing 14 of their next 19 games on the road, including a visit to Washington on January 14.
O’Reilly leads the Blues with 15 goals, 20 assists, and 35 points in 37 games. He is their only forward with a plus-rating. He has points in three straight games and two goals in that stretch. Their top players from last season, forwards Vladimir Tarasenko (33 goals and 66 points a year ago) and Brayden Schenn (42 assists and 70 points last year), only have 22 points each this season. Tarasenko, who has been mentioned in trade rumors as of late, has posted 11 goals in 37 games while Schenn has seven in 33. Tarasenko’s -15 rating is in a six-way tie for the 12th worst rating in the NHL.
Goaltender Jake Allen, who is 13-12-4 with a save percentage of .900, a goals-against average of 3.07, and one shutout this season, has appeared in 31 of the Blues’ 37 games this season and will likely start against Washington on Thursday. In three career appearances against the Capitals, the 28-year old netminder is 1-2-0 with a save percentage of .907, a goals-against average of 2.92, and one shutout.
Special Teams Matchup
The Capitals rank ninth in the NHL with an efficiency of 23.3% on the power-play and are tied with the Rangers for the seventh-worst in the league with an efficiency of only 77% on the penalty kill.
The Blues rank 16th in the NHL with an efficiency of 20.3% on the man advantage and 18th with an efficiency of 78.7% on the penalty kill.
-Ovechkin is currently on a five-game point streak against the Blues, posting eight goals and 11 points in that span; he has earned 28 points (15 goals) in 17 career games against the Blues and has recorded a hat trick in two of his last five games against St. Louis
-Kuznetsov enters Thursday’s game in St. Louis one point shy of 300 career points
-In December, the Capitals trailed for 140:09 cumulative minutes, the fewest minutes during that span
A Look Back In Time
After Tarasenko gave the Blues 1:15 into the last game of the season, Ovechkin scored twice in 2:45 to give the Capitals the lead. Carlson and forward Jason Chimera added goals in the second period to extend the lead for Washington. Ovechkin buried a cross-ice feed from Backstrom at the left circle for his 50th goal of the season. Goaltender Braden Holtby tied Martin Brodeur’s wins in a single season record with his 48th victory of the campaign, making 19 saves in the 5-1 win.
By Harrison Brown