NEWARK, N.J. -- The Capitals (36-9-4, 76 points) will visit the Prudential Center today (1 p.m., CSN) for the first of back-to-back games against the Metro Division rival New Jersey Devils (26-20-6, 58 points) and Philadelphia Flyers (Sunday, noon, NBC). Here are our AAA keys to today’s game:
In goal for the Capitals: Braden Holtby (31-5-3, 2.07 GAA, .928 SP) will go for his league-leading 32nd win off the season. He’s 23-1-3 in his last 28 starts and is on pace for 52 wins, four more than the NHL record set by former Devils netminder Martin Brodeur in 2006-07. Brodeur, who will be honored before the game in a banner-raising ceremony, played a career-high 78 games that record-breaking season but the Devils were knocked out in the second round of the playoffs. Holtby, who is slated to get the start against Philly on Sunday, is on pace for 67 games, five fewer than last season.
In goal for the Devils: Cory Schneider (23-15-5, 2.03 GAA, .929 SP) is expected to make his 44th appearance for the Devils. Schneider has won five of his last six starts and has allowed just 10 goals in that span. Schneider has high praise for the Capitals, saying, “Washington has kind of been head and shoulders above the league all season.”
Where the Caps stand: The Caps are 1-1-1 in their last three games and 3-2-1 in their last five. They lead the Chicago Blackhawks by two points in the overall standings; the Florida Panthers by nine points in the Eastern Conference standings; and the New York Rangers by 15 points in the Metro standings. If the playoffs started today, the top-seeded Caps would face the eighth-seeded Devils in Round 1 of the playoffs.
Where the Devils stand: New Jersey is also 1-1-1 in its last three games and 5-1-1 in its last seven, allowing 12 goals in those seven games. The Devils rank 29th in the NHL in goals per game (2.25), ahead of only Anaheim (2.22) but are third in the league in goals allowed per game (2.27), behind only the Panthers (2.20) and Capitals (2.24).
Hynes sight: Devils first-year head coach John Hynes served as an assistant coach under Capitals current assistant coach Todd Reirden when both were with the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins of the AHL in 2009-10. When Reirden became an assistant coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins the following season, Hynes was named head coach of Wilkes Barre-Scranton by then-Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who is now the GM in New Jersey and hired Hynes last summer. “He forces his players to be accountable,” said Capitals defenseman Taylor Chorney, who played for Hynes last season in Wilkes. “He’s got a knack for getting guys to buy in and you can see that with their team this year.”
Other connections: Chorney and T.J. Oshie were teammates with Devils forward Travis Zajac at the University of North Dakota in 2005-06. Devils assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald was Barry Trotz’s captain in Nashville from 1998-2002.
Moore of the same? The last time the Caps and Devils met was in the Caps’ season opener on Oct. 10 at Verizon Center. Alex Ovechkin netted the game-winner that night when he went coast to coast, passing the puck to himself behind his own skates, twisting defenseman John Moore like an Auntie Anne’s pretzel and roofing a shot over goalie Keith Kinkaid. Ovechkin trails Patrick Kane by two goals in his pursuit of a sixth Rocket Richard trophy. Kane has played in eight more games.
Rare air: As Presidents Trophy contenders, the Caps say they are getting the most out of their opponents every game. “Teams are real desperate,” Caps right wing Tom Wilson said. “It’s crunch time for the whole league. Teams want to take down the top teams. They know coming into our games that it’s going to be a hard game. We’ve just got to make sure we give them what they expect, play them hard and we’ll be OK.”
Caps coach Barry Trotz agrees.
“We started at an incredibly high level and we need to maintain that level,” he said. “It will be harder to do that because teams are all in at this point. If we have the right mindset to do that it will prepare us for the playoffs.”
Notable numbers: Alex Ovechkin, who two years ago was ridiculed for his career-worst minus-35 rating, is a plus-21 this season, second on the Caps behind Evgeny Kuznetsov (plus-25). Right wing Kyle Palmieri leads the Devils with 20 goals, while RW Lee Stempniak leads the team with 38 points. Jordan Tootoo leads the Devils with 74 penalty minutes and is a team-worst minus-20.
Barry Trotz on the Devils: “Big-time commitment in their system. They play the game the right way. Positionally, they’re very strong and accountable to each other in all three zones. They’re hard to play against. They make you earn everything.”
Scoring first: The Caps are 25-1-0 when scoring the first goal. The Devils are 17-0-4 when scoring first. The Caps are 27-0-1 when leading after two periods; the Devils are 16-0-1.
Big finishers: Matt Niskanen said Thursday night the Caps are a team that gets stronger as games go on. Their stats show it. The Caps have outscored opponents 61-38 in third periods this season. Eight of those goals have been empty-netters. (They’ve also allowed six empties).
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