The Capitals (35-8-4, 74 points) and Florida Panthers (29-15-5, 63 points) return from their NHL All-Star breaks tonight at Verizon Center (7:30 p.m., NBCSN). Here are our AAA Keys to the Game:
Backup vs. backup: For the third time this season Caps goalie Philipp Grubauer (5-3-1, 2.12 GAA, .925 SP) will face Al Montoya (7-2-1, 1.92, .929). The two teams split their first two meetings, with the Caps prevailing 2-1 on an overtime goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov on Oct. 31 and the Panthers winning 4-1 on Dec. 10. Both games were in Florida. Since this is the final meeting, the teams’ No. 1 goalies, Braden Holtby and Roberto Luongo, won’t face each other (outside of an All-Star Game) until the playoffs.
Power play shuffle: With Alex Ovechkin (suspension for missing All-Star Game) and Marcus Johansson (upper body injury) out of the lineup, look for the Caps’ top power play unit to have T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Williams and Matt Niskanen. The second unit will be Jason Chimera, Stan Galiev, Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson and John Carlson).
Lots of games: Including tonight, the Caps will play 35 games in 71 days to close out the regular season. With that kind of workload, Caps coach Barry Trotz said he expects Grubauer to see 25 percent of those starts, which equates to eight or nine. That means Braden Holtby is slated to play in roughly 27 of the final 35 games.
Future Hall of Famer? Trotz is usually reserved when it comes to making grand comparisons, but when he was asked about whom he might liken 19-year-old Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad to he brought up three Hall of Famers.
“I look at Ekblad and where he is at his age and, maybe they’re different in style, but you start throwing out names like (Chris) Pronger, (Al) MacInnis and (Nicklas) Lidstrom type of guys. If everything goes well and he keeps improving and growing as a player, I see definitely a Hall of Fame type of defenseman. It's hard to believe he's only that age. As a defenseman, you don't get into the Hall unless you're (exceptional) all around.”
How old is he? When Grubauer, 24, was asked what it’s like facing 43-year-old Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr, he quipped. “That guy is amazing. I wasn’t even born when he started playing (in the NHL).”
Here are tonight’s projected lineups:
Stan Galiev - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Justin Williams
Jason Chimera - Mike Richards - Tom Wilson
Brooks Laich - Zach Sill - Michael Latta
Matt Niskanen - Karl Alzner
Nate Schmidt - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov- Taylor Chorney
Philipp Grubauer (starter) - Braden Holtby
Injured: Brooks Orpik (lower body), Jay Beagle (upper body), Marcus Johansson (upper body)
Suspended: Alex Ovechkin
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Jaromir Jagr
Jussi Jokinen - Vincent Trocheck - Reilly Smith
Quinton Howden - Nick Bjugstad - Logan Shaw
Corban Knight - Derek MacKenzie - Shawn Thornton
Brian Campbell - Erik Gudbranson
Dmitry Kulikov - Aaron Ekblad
Steven Kampfer - Alex Petrovic
Al Montoya (starter) - Roberto Luongo
Injured: Willie Mitchell (lower body), Dave Bolland (lower body)
Scratched: Brandon Pirri