The Washington Capitals visit the Florida Panthers for the first meeting of the season between the two teams on Thursday night. The Panthers swept the three-game regular-season series with the Capitals last season, including a 5-3 win at home on April 1, and have gone 8-3-1 against the Capitals since the 2015-16 season. Action from BB&T Center can be seen on NBC Sports Washington beginning at 7 PM ET.
The Capitals come into Thursday night’s game looking to extend their winning streak to five games and point streak to 10 games. They have won eight of their last nine games (8-0-1). The Capitals have been a dominant road team so far this season as they have gone 7-1-1 away from Capital One Arena, including 5-0-1 in their last six road games. They have held a lead at least once in all but two of their road games this season and lead the NHL with 25 points.
The Capitals have had the best offense in the NHL so far this season as their 63 goals are first while their average of 3.94 goals-per-game ranks second only to the Nashville Predators (4.00). Their special teams have also been strong as their power-play sits fourth in the league with a 25.9% efficiency while their penalty-kill is eighth with an 86.2% efficiency heading into Thursday’s tilt.
Defenseman John Carlson leads the Capitals with 23 points, which is currently fifth in the league, but has cooled off recently after setting record after record for the first three weeks of the regular season. He has been held off of the scoresheet in three of his past four games and does not have an assist in that span. Though, his 16 assists still lead the Capitals and are good for third in the league in that category. Captain Alex Ovechkin leads the Capitals with 11 goals this season. Forward Jakub Vrana has had the hot hand lately as he is currently riding a five-game point streak, where he’s had six goals and nine points, including five goals in his last two games.
Center Nic Dowd, who missed the last two games with a lower-body injury, will travel to Florida with the team but will be a game-time decision against the Panthers. Forward Chandler Stephenson will likely be the odd-man-out of the lineup even though he has two goals in his last four games. The play of the Capitals’ fourth-line lately has forced head coach Todd Reirden to make some tough decisions. Center Travis Boyd started the season with the AHL’s Hershey Bears but it’s tough to imagine him coming out of the lineup after he posted three assists in four games since getting recalled.
Goaltender Braden Holtby, who is 6-1-3 with an .895 save percentage and a 3.30 goals-against average this season, will start against the Panthers on Thursday. In his career against the Panthers, the 30-year old is 10-2-2 with a .906 save percentage, a 2.78 goals-against average, and one shutout. In two games against Florida last year, Holtby made only 33 saves on 42 shots-against (.786 save percentage).
After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third consecutive season and the 17th time in the past 19 last year, the Panthers occupy the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with a 7-3-4 record this season and have won two straight entering Thursday’s game. Though only five of their 14 games so far this season have come at home, where they have gone 3-1-1. Like the Capitals, the Panthers come into Thursday night rested as they have been off since a 4-0 win against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday. They close out a short two-game homestand on Thursday before heading up north for a three-game road trip.
Forward Jonathan Huberdeau enters Thursday’s game leading the Panthers with nine goals and 18 points through 14 games this season and is coming off of back-to-back two-goal performances, where he has tallied five points. He led the Panthers in assists (62) and set a career-high in points (92) last season. Center Aleksander Barkov leads the Panthers and is tied for fourth in the NHL with 15 assists this season after recording 61 assists and 96 points last year.
The Panthers were one of the busiest teams in the league over the offseason, signing two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who has gone 6-2-3 with an .882 save percentage, a 3.36 goals-against average, and a shutout in 12 games this season; former Capitals forward Brett Connolly, who has posted five goals, 10 points, and a +2 rating; defenseman Anton Stralman, who has recorded five assists and a -2 rating; center Noel Acciari, who has four goals and a -3 rating; and center Brian Boyle, who has racked up two goals, three points, and a +3 rating in six games this season. They also hired three-time Stanley Cup Champion Joel Quenneville as their head coach. Goaltender Roberto Luongo (retired), center Riley Sheahan (signed one-year contract with Edmonton Oilers in free agency), goaltender James Reimer (traded to Carolina Hurricanes), and head coach Bob Boughner (fired) all left the club during the offseason.
Once again, the Panthers are one of the highest-scoring teams in the league as their average of 3.57 goals-per-game is fifth while they are also one of the worst defensive ones as their 3.43 goals-against per game is the eighth-most. Their 21.9% efficiency on the power-play is tied with the Vancouver Canucks for 10th while their 86.1% efficiency on the penalty-kill is ninth. Their average of 34.8 shots-per-game is second behind the Los Angeles Kings (36.3).
Bobrovsky will likely be in net on Thursday. In 25 career games against the Capitals, the 31-year old is 9-11-4 with a .904 save percentage and a 2.89 goals-against average. Though, he went 2-1-0 with a .940 save percentage and a 1.73 goals-against average against the Capitals last year with the Columbus Blue Jackets, including a 20-save shutout in a 3-0 win on February 12.
- Center Nicklas Backstrom enters Thursday night one point shy of passing Peter Forsberg (885) for the seventh most points all-time by a Swedish-born player
- Carlson enters Thursday night one point shy of passing Kevin Hatcher (426) for the third-most points in franchise history by a defenseman
- The Capitals have allowed 42.72 shots per 60 minutes of penalty kill time this season, the third-lowest shots against rate in the NHL
- The Capitals have led their games for 470:24, the second-most time in the NHL (Boston Bruins: 509:13)
By Harrison Brown