On the line tonight in Washington: Ilya Samsonov’s 153-minute shutout streak, and his former teammate Alex Ovechkin’s next opportunity on home ice to tie Gordie Howe for second in all-time NHL goal-scoring (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC).
A cool tie-in between two goal-scoring greats in Auston Matthews and Alex Ovechkin (besides Matthews sitting just nine goals behind Ovechkin’s pace 438 games into their respective careers): An eight-year-old Auston was in attendance in January 2006 in Glendale when Ovechkin — then a rookie — scored the best of his 800 career goals.
Matthews will be hoping he is not in attendance for Ovechkin’s 801st tonight.
Capitals fans were forced to wait at least another game to celebrate Ovechkin’s historic achievement in the team’s 2-1 home loss to Dallas on Thursday. Ovechkin fired five shots on goal and picked up an assist, but he couldn’t solve Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger and remains on the hunt for his 801st career goal tonight.
Standing in his way tonight is an ex-teammate and fellow countryman in Samsonov, who made his Leafs debut against his former team in a 3-2 win over Washington back on October 13 in Toronto and kept Ovechkin off of the scoresheet in that matchup. Samsonov is currently the NHL leader in goals against average (1.71) and has allowed one goal on 81 shots since returning from injury on November 30, including back-to-back shutouts in his last two starts.
With Nick Backstrom and Tom Wilson yet to appear this season (both are nearing a return, the former sooner than the latter), the Capitals have been scrapping and clawing to remain in the hunt in the Metropolitan playoff picture in the first half of the season, currently sitting just above .500 at 15-13-4 thanks to a recent five-game winning streak that ended with the loss to Dallas on Thursday.
Dylan Strome and Conor Sheary have filled in adequately enough at the top of the lineup at C and RW, producing 24 and 19 points in 32 games, respectively, but the Capitals are eager to get those two difference-makers back in their top six. Long-term injuries have plagued Washington’s forward corps this year: In addition to Backstrom (hip surgery) and Wilson (ACL surgery) missing most of the first half of the season, Connor Brown is likely out for the rest of the season (ACL surgery) and Carl Hagelin may be in the same boat (hip surgery).
Shorter-term injuries to starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper and 20-minute-per-game defenseman Martin Fehervary have also been setbacks for the Capitals in the month of December, but they have managed to win five of their last six, all with Charlie Lindgren in net (5-1-0, .936 save percentage).
Quite familiar with injuries themselves this season, the Maple Leafs appear to have dodged a bullet with Timothy Liljegren’s hand injury suffered in Thursday’s 3-1 loss in New York — it wasn’t serious enough to keep him out of today’s morning skate. Liljegren is a game-time decision but probable to play tonight, with Mac Hollowell called up and flown into Washington to provide an extra body on hand. Sheldon Keefe also hinted this morning that there is more than one defenseman who could be a game-time decision.
Provided Liljegren and the Leafs‘ other blue-line regulars are all good to go, the Leafs‘ lineup will remain unchanged (based on the morning skate) as they look to bounce back and start a new streak following their first regulation loss since November 11th.
Head to Head: Leafs vs. Capitals
In the season-to-date statistics, the Maple Leafs hold the advantage over the Capitals in four out of five offensive categories and four out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge against the Capitals:
They’re getting scoring from all lines. They have a fourth line that is as good as any in the league. They’ll use it against our top guys, which opens up favourable matchups throughout the rest of the lineup. That is something for us to manage a little bit today.
They are a team that has a lot of confidence and is feeling good about their game. They have been outplaying teams pretty consistently here for quite a while now. Like us, they are coming off of a loss. It will be a good game against a motivated opponent.
Keefe on the five-forward power-play unit in the morning skate:
We haven’t made a decision yet on what we are going to do. We haven’t practiced very much. We want to get a look at a different option. We have Sandin there for a look we have used.
Obviously, the power play hasn’t been nearly good enough in the last month or so. We need to start looking at different options.
You get another high-end player on the ice, but let’s see if we actually use it before we start making a big deal out of it.
Auston Matthews on Marner practicing as the point man on a five-forward power play in the morning skate:
It is just the way he moves, skates, and thinks the game. He is extremely shifty. Up there, he is really deceptive. He definitely doesn’t look out of place.
Matthews on Alex Ovechkin’s 800 career goals:
It is really hard to put into words. It is cool that we are witnessing some pretty incredible history. We are going to try to shut him down tonight, but he is a pretty tough guy to stop. What he has done year after year with consistency is incredible and remarkable.
With his will to score, he plays every game like it is his last night. He is just a horse out there. He loves to score goals. That has been pretty evident throughout his career.
There are lots of things that make him great, but the consistency factor and the will to power through every year — and every game — to show up and do his thing is really impressive.
Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette on facing Ilya Samsonov:
Our guys know him, and he was here and a part of the organization for quite a while. He is off in Toronto doing well, so that is good for him. We are going to try to figure out ways to get pucks behind him and win a hockey game.
… We are really happy with the guys that are in net here. Vitek [Vanecek] and Sammy were good young goalies that did a good job for us, but we were able to pick up a guy like Darcy [Kuemper] with his pedigree. Charlie [Lindgren] has come in and played really well for us. We are happy as well.
Laviolette on the contributions of former Leaf Nicolas Aube-Kubel:
He has played really well. I know it is frustrating to sit out, too, and I really noticed him in that Chicago game. I noticed his speed and physicality. That line was really good. Even [against Dallas], he did a really good job. It is nice to see him jump in and contribute.
Evgeny Kuznetsov on facing Samsonov:
I don’t have best friends before him that I play against (laughs). I don’t know. He’ll try to stay focused and I’ll try to keep him loose.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#62 Denis Malgin – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #64 David Kämpf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #28 Joey Anderson
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#78 TJ Brodie – #25 Conor Timmins
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#30 Matt Murray
Extras: Wayne Simmonds, Mac Hollowell
Injured: Nick Robertson, Calle Järnkrok, Jordie Benn, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
Washington Capitals Projected Lines
#8 Alex Ovechkin – #17 Dylan Strome – #73 Conor Sheary
#15 Sonny Milano – #92 Evgeny Kuznetsov – #39 Anthony Mantha
#90 Marcus Johansson – #20 Lars Eller – #77 T.J Oshie
#59 Aliaksei Protas – #26 Nic Dowd – #21 Garnet Hathaway
#56 Erik Gustafsson – #74 John Carlson
#9 Dmitry Orlov – #3 Nick Jensen
#52 Matt Irwin – #57 Trevor Van Riemsdyk
Starter: #79 Charlie Lindgren
#31 Hunter Shepard
Injured: Carl Hagelin, Tom Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom, Connor Brown, Darcy Kuemper, Martin Fehervary, Beck Malenstyn