Photo: Scott Rovak/Getty Images
The last two Stanley Cup Champions clash on the opening night of the NHL season on Wednesday as the St. Louis Blues host the Washington Capitals. The Blues won both games between the two teams last season, taking a 5-2 decision at home on January 3 before earning a 4-1 win in Washington 11 days later. The Capitals and Blues split a two-game preseason set last month with the Capitals winning 3-2 on September 18 at home before the Blues returned the favor last Friday, prevailing 4-3 on home ice. Action from Enterprise Center can be seen on NBCSN beginning at 8 PM ET.
The Capitals start the season with a two-game road-trip and play their fourth straight road game dating back to the preseason. They were strong on the road a season ago, going 24-15-2 away from home, but that all went away when the Stanley Cup Playoffs came around as they lost all three of their road games. The Capitals were outscored 12-3 in those three road losses during the first round.
The Capitals had a busy offseason, adding some beef and strong two-way players after they finished 17th in the NHL in goals-against per game last season (3.02). They swapped a key cog in their run to the Stanley Cup in 2018 in defenseman Matt Niskanen when they dealt him to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for defenseman Radko Gudas. In addition, they also signed forwards Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway, and Brendan Leipsic to retool their bottom-six forward group after they combined for just a goal (which came on a penalty shot) in the first round last season.
While the Capitals lost a 20-goal scorer from last year in forward Brett Connolly over the offseason, they still have plenty of firepower up front. Captain Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 51 goals and his team with 89 points in 81 games a season ago and shows no signs of slowing down as he just turned 34 last month. Defenseman John Carlson led the Capitals with 57 assists last season. The Capitals had six players who hit the 20-goal plateau last season returning (Ovechkin, forward T.J. Oshie – 25, forward Jakub Vrana – 24, center Nicklas Backstrom and forward Tom Wilson – 22 each, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov – 21).
The Capitals will not have Kuznetsov, who will serve the first game of a three-game suspension for inappropriate conduct, or defenseman Michal Kempny, who is still recovering from hamstring surgery which he had on April 2 and led the team with a +24 rating last season, in the lineup on Wednesday. Expect to see Jonas Seigenthaler, who appeared in the Capitals’ last four Stanley Cup Playoff games and posted four points (all assists) and a +6 rating in 26 regular-season games last year, and forward Chandler Stephenson, who tallied five goals, 11 points, and a team-worst -13 rating in 64 games last season, step in for Kempny and Kuznetsov, respectively. Defenseman Martin Fehervary, the team’s second-round pick in 2018 (46th overall) in 2018, is also slated to make his NHL debut in St. Louis.
Goaltender Braden Holtby, who went 32-19-5 with a save percentage of .911, a goals-against-average of 2.82, and three shutouts last season, is expected to get the start against the Blues. In his career against St. Louis, the 30-year old is 7-1-0 with a save percentage of .925 and a goals-against-average of 2.36. Holtby made 21 saves in the Capitals’ 4-3 loss at the Blues on Friday.
After sitting in the league’s basement on January 3 with a 15-18-4 record, the Blues went 30-10-5 the rest of the way to lock up the third spot in the Central Division. They went on to beat the Winnipeg Jets in six games in the first round, the Dallas Stars in double overtime of Game 7 in the second, the San Jose Sharks in six games in the Western Conference Final, and the Boston Bruins in seven games in the Stanley Cup Final.
Things in St. Louis were relatively quiet during the offseason but they went out with a bang, acquiring former All-Star defenseman Justin Faulk, who recorded 11 goals, 35 points, and a +9 rating in 82 regular-season games and one goal, eight points, and a +4 rating in 15 Stanley Cup Playoff games last season, in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on September 24. Besides him, signing defenseman Derick Pouliot was the only other addition that they made over the summer. The Blues didn’t lose a lot either as hometown hero and forward Patrick Maroon is the only player who is gone from the roster that dressed for Game 7 in Boston.
Center Ryan O’Reilly led the Blues with 49 assists, 77 points, and a +22 rating after getting acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres in July 2018. He also stood out in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as his eight goals and team-leading 23 points in 26 games earned him a Conn Smythe Trophy, which is awarded to the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs each year. Forward Vladimir Tarasenko led the team in goals with 33, which he hit for the second consecutive season, and came one short of forward Jaden Schwartz’s 12 goals for the team lead during the postseason.
The addition of Faulk bolsters a Blues’ defense that finished last season with an average of only 2.68 goals-against per game, which tied the Arizona Coyotes for the fifth-lowest in the NHL, and 28.6 shots-against per game, which was tied with the Hurricanes for the third-lowest. The Blues were also strong on the penalty kill a season ago as their efficiency of 81.5% ranked ninth on the circuit. While the Blues were really stingy in their own zone a season ago, their average of 2.98 goals-per-game was in the middle of the pack – 15th in the league.
Goaltender Jordan Binnington, who set an NHL-record 16 Stanley Cup Playoff wins by a rookie last Spring, will likely get the nod against the Capitals on Wednesday. After being called up from AHL San Antonio midseason, the 25-year old went 24-5-1 with a .927 save percentage, a league-leading 1.89 goals-against average, and five shutouts in the regular season. He was also strong in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as he posted a .914 save percentage and a 2.46 goals-against average. Binnington has never played a regular-season game against the Capitals in his career but made 22 saves on 23 shots while playing two periods of the Capitals’ 3-2 preseason win over the Blues on September 18.
- Ovechkin leads all active NHL players in career opening-night goals (10) and is tied with Sharks center Joe Thornton for the lead in career opening-night points (17)
- Ovechkin enters this season one power-play goal shy of passing Luc Robitaille (247) for the fourth-most power-play goals in NHL history
- The Capitals have a 21-21-1-1 record all-time in season openers and are 3-0-2 in season openers over the last five seasons
By Harrison Brown