“It’s very special and especially this locker room, too,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said with a smile after practice. “This is where the party was going on. … From now on it is our favorite place to play.”
The Capitals will face the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday for the third and final game of a road trip that has featured a comeback win over the Colorado Avalanche and a frustrating loss to the Arizona Coyotes. Amid an up-and-down stretch, during which it has looked out of sync and unable to execute over a full 60 minutes, Washington is hoping that being back in Vegas for the second time since its Stanley Cup run might provide a little extra boost to get the group going again.
“It certainly gives me one,” said Capitals Coach Todd Reirden, who was an assistant on Barry Trotz’s staff when the team won the Cup in 2018. “… It’s a special spot for us, and I think you can’t help but find yourself with some quiet time and remembering things that happened at certain times. And now that it has been removed for two years, you take it in. … Now maybe you have a chance to recollect your thoughts to win that trophy in this building.”
Said Backstrom: “It’s hard to not think about that when you come into this city. Obviously a special place for a lot of people on this team. ... As we all know, we haven’t played our best hockey these last couple games, and I think it is great that hopefully we can turn it around [Monday].”
Washington is 4-5-0 since the all-star break, and it hasn’t won consecutive games since a four-game winning streak that ended Jan. 27. A 3-1 loss to the Coyotes on Saturday night was the latest blip, and the Capitals (37-16-5) enter Monday just one point ahead of the surging Pittsburgh Penguins atop the Metropolitan Division with one fewer game remaining.
“When we are playing good, we are playing good, but when we play bad, I mean, we are really bad,” Backstrom said. “We need to get our level up a little bit and over 60 minutes, I think. We can’t be up-and-down like we are, so … execution is probably number one that comes in my mind.”
Monday will be another chance for captain Alex Ovechkin to become the eighth player in NHL history to reach the 700-goal plateau. He remains stuck on 698 career goals after going four games without scoring, his longest drought of the season. But Ovechkin has had a plethora of scoring opportunities (15 shots on goal and 32 total attempts over the past two games), and Reirden isn’t concerned about the star’s recent lack of production.
Reirden said that as long as Ovechkin continues to get himself into the interior of the offensive zone, any puck has a chance to go in because of his release and the way the puck comes off his stick.
“It’s just the way it goes sometimes,” Backstrom said. “As long as he gets his chances, he is going to be able to capitalize pretty soon.”
The Capitals again will be without center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has progressed since he suffered an upper-body injury Monday against the New York Islanders but is still not ready for game action. It will be Kuznetsov’s third straight game missed.
Goaltender Braden Holtby, on the other hand, will start his third straight game Monday. Reirden said he feels like Holtby has regained an extra bit of “swagger and confidence” after strong performances in starts against the Avalanche and Coyotes and in the third period against the Islanders.
A return to the scene of his biggest career highlight is another reason for optimism.
“I think obviously he has done some special things in this building,” Reirden said. “And I think these last two games plus the third period [against New York] he kind of put his foot down, and [we] hope for him to continue. I think he’s given us a chance to win — between Colorado and [Arizona], he’s given us a chance. ... We need him to keep us in there until we are able to execute and finish a few more plays.”
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