Game of the Week Preview: Blackhawks, Capitals must remain dominant

If the 2010-11 season experienced by both the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals teaches us anything, it’s that a typical NHL campaign features some brilliant peaks and some bleak valleys.

The Capitals experienced two wildly different streaks this season, as they lost eight consecutive games in time for the taping of HBO’s 24/7 series but now find themselves on a seven-game winning streak thanks in part to Alex Ovechkin’s resurgence. Many people were rolling out their “Told ya so” columns when things looked dark for the defending champion Blackhawks, but those people are noticeably quiet after Jonathan Toews helped them produce a 9-2-1 run in their last 12 games.

Yet as Tracey Myers of CSN Chicago points out, neither team can smell the roses during their recent parades of success. Sure, Chicago is currently holding a playoff spot in the West, but only one point separates the Blackhawks from ninth-place Nashville. While Washington’s playoff status is fairly safe, its Southeast Division lead is tenuous at best, being the Capitals are only three points ahead of Tampa Bay.

Myers asked Toews about his expectations for Sunday’s contest.

“We had a tough game against Tampa the other night and we expect the same thing against Washington,” Jonathan Toews said. “As tight as the West is it’s tight in the East, too. Every team’s trying to secure their playoff spots. Regardless of standings, teams want to play their best hockey right now. So you look at the top guns and they are starting to play better.”

So while the Hawks reminisce about their 2009-10 success with the most powerful man in the world, they cannot look at their visit to D.C. as a glorified photo op. A simple glance at the standings shows that both teams need every point they can get.

(Those points will be that much tougher to come by for Chicago with Dave Bolland banged up, as the underrated center is day-to-day after taking that Pavel Kubina elbow.)

A deeper look into the Bruins’ 11-game losing streak against the Caps

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There are some streaks in professional sports that simply don’t make sense. How some teams continue to dominate others year after year even though coaches and rosters change is kind of weird.

One of those strange streaks was extended on Thursday night, as the Washington Capitals defeated the Boston Bruins for the 11th straight time. The last time the Bruins took down the Caps was in March of 2014. The B’s have made a coaching change, they’ve altered the roster, but they still can’t beat the Caps.

As Washington’s Barry Trotz pointed out earlier this month, every squad seems to have a “unicorn team”. On Dec. 5, Trotz’s team beat the San Jose Sharks for the first time since 2009. Fine, the Capitals and Sharks might not play each other that often, but that’s still an eight-year losing streak.

“Every team has a unicorn team, you do,” Trotz said at the time, per the team’s website. “I was talking to the Columbus broadcasters [on Saturday], and they said, ‘Do you know what your record is against Columbus?’ And I said, “I have no idea.’ They said, ‘It’s pretty good.’

“For years, Nashville was [the Blue Jackets’] unicorn. They could never beat them. I think every team has that. The ones that come to mind for me with this club are San Jose and Dallas. We’ve been a unicorn for a few franchises, too. I just think everybody has one of those.”

Trotz is right. The Capitals have definitely been Boston’s unicorn.

The last time the Bruins took down the Capitals, Claude Julien was still their head coach, Jarome Iginla was the third-leading scorer on the team, and Milan Lucic, Reilly Smith, Loui Eriksson, Carl Soderberg and Andrej Meszaros were still on the roster.

Also, Barack Obama was still the president of the United States, the hoverboard scooter wasn’t invented yet, Nico Hischier was just 15 years old, and Tom Brady was “only” a three-time Super Bowl Champion.

“At some point you definitely want to get it over with and win those games,” Patrice Bergeron said after last night’s 5-3 loss, per NHL.com.  It’s not something necessarily that I was thinking before the game … we knew it was a challenge and we had to be good and be smart. A few breakdowns and a little lack of discipline [and they] made us pay is the bottom line.”

Here’s the game-by-game breakdown of the 11-game losing streak:

• Oct. 11, 2014: 4-0 loss at home (Alex Ovechkin scored twice, Braden Holtby had the shutout)

• Mar. 15, 2015: 2-0 loss on the road (Nicklas Backstrom assisted on both goals, Holtby had the shutout)

• Apr. 8, 2015: 3-0 loss on the road (Backstrom had two more assists, Holtby had the shutout)

• Nov. 5, 2015: 4-1 loss on the road (John Carlson had a goal and an assist)

• Jan. 5, 2016: 3-2 loss at home (Evgeny Kuznetsov had a goal and an assist)

• Mar. 5, 2016: 2-1 OTL at home (Matt Niskanen scored the game-winning goal)

• Dec. 7, 2016: 4-3 OTL on the road (Justin Williams scored twice, Backstrom netted the OT winner)

• Feb. 1, 2017: 5-3 loss on the road (Backstrom had three points)

• Apr. 8, 2017: 3-1 loss at home (Kevin Shattenkirk scored the game-winning goal)

• Nov. 4, 2017: 3-2 loss at home (Tom Wilson had two goals)

• Dec. 14, 2017: 5-3 loss at home (Alex Chiasson scored twice, Ovechkin had a goal (empty-netter and an assist)

These two teams will play each other one more time (Dec. 28) this season. Will the Bruins be able to figure out how to beat their “unicorn” by then?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: What’s holding the Islanders back?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• University of Alabama hockey player Jon Lovorn is dedicating this season to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School. (SECCountry.com)

• It’s time for the NHL to give all 31 teams an outdoor game next season. (Vice Sports)

• Philly.com takes a look at Sean Couturier‘s “well-balanced” life and how it got him to the NHL. (Philly.com)

• A strong end to 2017 could help the Predators land home ice advantage in the playoffs (Predlines)

• If/when Seattle makes it to the NHL, there might be too many teams in the Pacific Division. How would realignment look? (Five for Howling)

• One of the reasons the Oilers have struggled for so long is because of their inability to select solid players late in drafts. (OilersNation.com)

• The only thing that appears to be holding the Islanders back is goaltending. (The Hockey News)

• The Hershey Bears released their 2018 Outdoor Classic Jersey for their game against Lehigh Valley next month. (RussianMachineNeverBreaks.com)

• The Rangers’ recent struggles prove that they need to be sellers before the trade deadline. (NY Post)

• The Devils and Coyotes swapped minor-league forwards yesterday. New Jersey got Michael Latta while the Coyotes got Ryan Kujawinski. (NHL.com/Coyotes)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Saros, streaks, shutouts

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Player of the Night: Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators

You can criticize the Edmonton Oilers for taking too many perimeter shots and/or having their defensemen fire the puck far too often, and you’d probably have a point.

Still, on nights like these, you also have to acknowledge that the Oilers have also run into some tough luck and even tougher goalies. When it came to Thursday, Saros was that tough goalie, and he reminded the NHL that’s he capable of being more than “just a backup.”

The Finnish goalie set a new Predators record by making 46 saves for a shutout, collecting the second goose egg of his blossoming career.

The Predators (specifically Kyle Turris‘ new second line, which might need to be called a 1B line at this rate) are on a roll, beating Edmonton 4-0 to grab at least one point (7-1-2) in nine of their last 10 games.

Highlights of the Night

Nice play finished by Patrick Kane, as the Blackhawks cooled the Jets:

Jakub Vrana‘s goal was pretty sweet, and a taste of the Capitals’ recent dominance of the Bruins.

Josh Bailey‘s hat trick is worth watching here, even if it wasn’t enough to propel the Islanders to a win against the Blue Jackets.

Scary moment

Here’s hoping that Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ryan Callahan are OK:

The Lightning kept their hot streak going with a W over the Coyotes.

Factoids

Brayden Point gets the Lightning their … well, you probably know. Their points.

The Wild are picking it up, and it’s not just the power of Bruce Boudreau. Probably.

The Flyers are weird, and so is hockey.

Scores

Capitals 5, Bruins 3
Flyers 2, Sabres 1
Blue Jackets 6, Islanders 4
Canadiens 2, Devils 1 (OT)
Ducks 3, Blues 1
Wild 2, Maple Leafs 0
Blackhawks 5, Jets 1
Avalanche 2, Panthers 1
Sharks 3, Flames 2
Predators 4, Oilers 0
Lightning 4, Coyotes 1
Golden Knights 2, Penguins 1

Fleury gets revenge against Penguins, Vegas grabs 20th win

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If you’re the fussy type, you might object to the word “revenge” in the headline.

It feels wrong to say that Marc-Andre Fleury got “the last laugh” against the Pittsburgh Penguins, being that this game happened in mid-December. So feel free to soften the verbiage; maybe you’d prefer to say that Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights merely “got the best” of the Penguins.

Either way, round one goes to “MAF.”

The instinct might be to ding this game because it came in Vegas instead of Pittsburgh, but you could say that there was a healthy offering of Penguins fans tonight:

Whatever way you slice it, there was reportedly a fascinating atmosphere in Vegas, even if the game was a bit “low-event” at times, at least when you consider sheer pucks on net; Fleury stopped 24 out of 25 shots on goal while Murray gave up two goals on 26.

This odd-angle goal by Ian Cole was the only puck to beat Fleury, who was lights out in a second straight victory since returning from concussion issues that … we thought might have been the end of the Golden Knights’ hot start.

If the scene wasn’t nostalgia-laced enough, consider that Fleury evoked the save he made against Nicklas Lidstrom in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final:

Sheesh, some of this stuff almost seems on the nose, doesn’t it?

Remarkably, the Golden Knights improve to 20-9-2 while the Penguins fell to 16-14-3. Writing that almost made me pass out from the unlikelihood of it all; honestly, if someone told Golden Knights management that their record could be 16-14-3, they’d probably take it, right?

In case you’re wondering, yes, this marks another record.

So, the Golden Knights are 12-2-1 in Vegas so far. This doesn’t guarantee that there’s some sort of … sickness that comes from playing a team located in Sin City, yet it doesn’t exactly slam the door shut on such a conversation, either.

Now, Marc-Andre Fleury? He’s done quite a commendable job of shutting the door so far for the Golden Knights. His old buddies found out the hard way tonight.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.