On Sunday evening, the Caps will face the Blue Jackets in the most important game of the season for both teams.
With a win in regulation, Alex Ovechkin and Co. can gain some welcome separation with four games left to play. A Blue Jackets’ triumph in regulation, on the other hand, could make things much more interesting by cutting the Caps’ edge in half. Columbus will also have four games remaining after Sunday’s showdown at Nationwide Arena.
Finishing atop the Metro figures to ensure a more favorable path forward when the playoffs begin later this month.
If the playoffs began Sunday, the Capitals would open the first round on F Street against the Bruins, who are surging but have collected 20 fewer points. Columbus’ path, meanwhile, would begin against Sidney Crosby and the defending champion Penguins. A Blue Jackets-Penguins matchup would also send one of the Eastern Conference’s top three teams home after just one round.
“You should be happy you’re playing big games this time of year,” veteran winger Justin Williams said. “And Columbus is a big one.”
For the Caps, the trip to Columbus also represents a chance to rebound following one of their more disappointing performances of the season, a 6-3 loss to the Coyotes in the desert late Friday night.
Making that defeat sting even more was the fact that the Caps missed out on a major opportunity. Prior to losing to the NHL’s 29th place team, the Blue Jackets had fallen to the Western Conference-leading Blackhawks in Chicago.
“What’s more disappointing,” winger Daniel Winnik said, “is you do some scoreboard watching and you see [the Blue Jackets] lose to Chicago. So it really would have put us in a better position going into Sunday’s game.”
Coach Barry Trotz added: “We’ve been working all year to try to get some separation, and we had an opportunity and we let it slip away.”
The Caps took Saturday off as they made their way to Columbus for the fourth leg of a five-game road trip.
So far, Washington is 2-1-0 on the trip, having earned victories in Minnesota (in overtime) and Colorado before losing to the Coyotes. In those three games, the normally stingy Caps have allowed a total of 13 goals.
Overall, they are 7-1-1 in their last nine games. After Columbus, the schedule wraps up with games at the Maple Leafs, vs. the Rangers, at the Bruins and vs. the Panthers.
The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, are 2-2-2 in their last six contests and are in the midst of an offensive downturn. They’ve scored just nine goals during that six-game span and haven’t registered a power play goal in nine games. Columbus’ season concludes with games at Pittsburgh, vs. Winnipeg, at Philadelphia and at Toronto.
Sunday represents the fifth and final meeting between the Caps and Jackets. Washington is 2-1-1 in the four prior meetings, including a 2-1 shootout win in the teams’ most recent meeting on March 23.
“It’s just a big game,” Winnik said of the pivotal matchup. “Probably the most important one of the year.”