The Washington Capitals entered Christmas break as the NHL’s best team. Through the first 38 games of the season, the Capitals collected 58 standings points and scored 137 goals, most in the league.
But if there’s one team that is their kryptonite, it’s the Columbus Blue Jackets – the fifth-worst team in the East. The John Tortorella-led club has delivered the Capitals two of their seven regulation losses of the season. The Blue Jackets have beaten the Capitals by a combined score of 8-2, including a 3-0 shutout in their last game on December 16.
So the Capitals are going to change things up.
Capitals head coach Todd Reirden announced that rookie goaltender Ilya Samsonov would start in goal after Friday’s morning skate.
“We had decided this before the break,” Reirden said. “We haven’t had a ton of success against Columbus yet this year so just wanted to give them a different look and see something different. And then that way, we have Braden to play Carolina as well.” The Capitals play the Hurricanes the next night in Raleigh.
Samsonov has won nine of his first 11 starts in the NHL. He last played Monday against the Boston Bruins after Braden Holtby was pulled for giving up four first-period goals. Samsonov stopped three of four shots in 37:41 of action.
On the season, Samsonov has a 2.39 goals against average and .914 save percentage. But for Reirden, the thing that the Russian goaltender has impressed him most with is his demeanor.
“I just think the thing that that’s probably the most surprising to me is his composure throughout a game,” Reirden said. “Whether he’s given up a goal or made a highlight-reel save, the way he comes to the bench or the way that he [drinks] water or reacts in the net is the exact same thing, I think that’s really good for a young goaltender, but I think that’s a strong attribute of any goalie that they settle things down and they give you comfort back there. If you make a mistake, they’re there to help bail you out. He’s always responding the right way. That’s been the thing that’s most impressed me about him this year. He just continues to get more and more confidence.”
Samsonov will need that patience against a team that has bedeviled the Capitals recently. Since February 2018, the Blue Jackets have beaten the Capitals six out of the last seven times during the regular season.
— Tarik El-Bashir (@Tarik_ElBashir) December 27, 2019
This season, the scrappy Blue Jackets won the teams’ first matchup 5-2.
A week later, Columbus shut out the Capitals for the first time this season. Joonas Korpisalo stopped all 30 shots he faced while Oliver Bjorkstrand scored twice.
“We actually did some decent things in the (second) game,” Reirden said. “We were shut out in the game which something we haven’t seen a lot of or any of. So they’re challenging us in their desire to block shots to take away dangerous areas. We’ve got to make sure we’re not on the perimeter against them.
“We’ll try a couple of different things tonight that we’d like to do,” Reirden added. “Ultimately, it comes down to our ability to break pucks out and execute when we have a plan in place. The three goals [we gave up] in that game were all detailed oriented, systematic mistakes that we routinely execute and then end up in the back of our net.”
Reirden saw similarities between the Blue Jackets and the Hurricanes – the team that eliminated in the first round of the postseason last spring.
“They both really emphasize the forecheck and getting pucks behind the opposition’s defense below the goal line,” Reirden said. “They’re physical when they arrive. Hunting pucks, they make it tough on your defense. Their D is pinching on both sides a lot. They really shorten the zone, so it’s really important you execute your breakout structure and if you do, you’ll have some opportunities going the opposite direction. I think they’re both high shot volume teams, in particular, Columbus during this recent streak of theirs. They’ve been able to find some success with that. That’s something we saw obviously with Carolina from the past.”
The Blue Jackets have won five games in a row and have points in eight straight (6-0-2) despite missing a ton of their regular players with injury.
So out for Blue Jackets tonight:
Milano (upper body)
Murray (lower body)
Nutivaara (upper body)
— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) December 27, 2019
“Certainly, tonight is not going to be a picture-perfect game no matter what after three days away, but those are some details that we talked about – being sharper this morning with our team,” Reriden said, as the Capitals have two players sick themselves: defensemen Radko Gudas and Michal Kempny. “Again, you know what you’re getting with a few days off but at the same time you need to hold players accountable of how you want your team to play. We have a few other things to add to tonight’s game but we need to match their battle level. That’s the biggest key against their team. They’re hardworking and we need to make sure we match that.”
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
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