WASHINGTON — First place in the Metropolitan Division could be on the line when the Capitals host the New York Islanders (7:30 p.m. NBC Sports Washington) at Capital One Arena on Friday. This game is about much more than just Barry Trotz’s return to Washington as head coach of the Islanders – though that is the big storyline in a game with several good ones. Here is what to watch for in tonight’s rivalry game with the streaking Islanders.
Good news from the morning skate at Capitals Iceplex where Braden Holtby has been cleared to start against the Islanders tonight following his eye injury last Saturday against Columbus. That wasn’t at all clear Thursday when Holtby practiced, but neither he nor coach Todd Reirden would confirm he was playing against New York. The eye appears to have improved over night, however, and the Caps won’t have to recall a goalie from AHL Hershey. Holtby is expected to start.
“It’s been a little bit of touch and go,” Reirden said. “Any time you can get your No. 1 goalie in there it’s great for us. Real happy to have him in there for us tonight.”
This qualifies as a big game in January. The surprising Islanders (27-15-4) have won 13 of 16 to stun the NHL. Remember, this is a team that lost star center Jonathan Tavares in free agency and was expected to be an also-ran this season. Instead, New York (58 points) is one point behind Columbus and the Capitals (59 points) for first place. The Blue Jackets (28-15-3) host Montreal on Friday so there’s no guarantee a win gets New York or Washington (27-14-5) into first place. Columbus (59) is technically ahead of the Caps, but they are even in points through 46 games.
The Caps were outclassed by Nashville in a 7-2 loss on Tuesday. They are 3-4-2 over the past nine games. They were outscored 11-3 by St. Louis and Nashville this week. A good even strength team most of the season, Washington has been outscored 10-2 at even strength in its past three games. The power play is showing signs of life recently. The penalty kill has shown some improvement. Now the Caps need to plug the leak at evens to get back on track.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik played in his 1,000th career game on Monday against the St. Louis Blues. He will be honored with a pregame ceremony. Expect gifts from the Caps, his teammates and the NHL. Orpik played 11 years with the Pittsburgh Penguins and is in his fifth year in Washington and has his name on the Stanley Cup twice. It’s been quite a career for the 38-year-old.
Of course, the big story is Barry Trotz returning to Washington after leading the Caps to the Stanley Cup in June. Expect a video tribute in the first period and a huge ovation from the crowd. Given how hot the Islanders are there will be probably be a few of them in the building, too. There’s a reason for everyone to cheer.
“It’s going to be pretty cool for Barry and for the fans and for everyone really,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “Being a head coach of a Stanley Cup champion team carries a lot of weight, it carries a lot of respect, which I imagine he’ll get on the Jumbotron tonight…It’ll be nice to see him again/ Pretty special moments with him on our side of the bench.”
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