GLENDALE, Ariz. — For the Washington Capitals, it seems as if it’s always a December to remember.
A season ago, the Capitals’ six-game winning streak in December propelled them to a stretch in which they won 26 of 33 games and gained points in all but four games. That midseason push was largely responsible for Washington winning a second successive Presidents’ Trophy for the best NHL regular-season record.
Now, it’s deja vu all over again as the Capitals have won four in a row and eight of nine in December entering their game against the Arizona Coyotes on Friday night. Right wing Brett Connolly said it’s beginning to feel a lot like last season.
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“We’re playing really good right now, and it seems the same as last year,” Connolly said. “We found our groove at Christmas time, and it’s kind of working the same way. We’ve got to keep working and think positive and things will turn our way.”
Things haven’t gone the Capitals’ way that often in Arizona, where they’ve won only one of their last six. But they are getting balanced scoring — their third line produced three goals and four assists in a 3-2 overtime win at Dallas on Tuesday — and they might be catching the Coyotes at the right time.
The Coyotes, saddled with the NHL’s worst record at 7-24-5, have lost seven in a row and 10 of 11, and they’re only 3-11-1 at home. Washington, conversely, is 22-12-1 and tied for the Metropolitan Division lead. It has outscored opponents 36-21 in December.
“It’s doing a lot for our confidence,” Capitals left wing Andre Burakovsky said.
Arizona’s last two defeats were especially deflating — the two worst of the season, based on coach Rich Tocchet’s postgame remarks.
The Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit to tie Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh on Saturday, only to lose 4-2 after defenseman Olli Maatta scored with 15 seconds remaining. On Tuesday, they were doubling up the Florida Panthers in shots while leading 2-0, only to give up the lead and the game by allowing three goals in less than six minutes — one with 10 seconds left in the second period.
“I wish I had the answer right now, (but) it’s pretty much a broken record,” said goaltender Antti Raanta, who has made 129 saves in his last four games. “We need to keep working, even though it feels like nothing is going your way, every bounce is not going your way. If you’re not working hard enough, if you’re not putting everything on the line every shift, every minute, every period, in this league the games will turn.”
The Capitals are proving they can turn games with production from players other than Alex Ovechkin (23 goals), Evgeny Kuznetsov (36 points) and goalie Braden Holtby, who already has 20 wins and is halfway toward a record fourth consecutive season with 40 or more wins.
On Tuesday, Burakovsky — still regaining his game legs after missing 20 games with a broken thumb — had two goals, including the game-winner in overtime, and an assist, and linemate Connolly had a goal and an assist.
“He’s a big part of the team and he knows it,” Connolly said. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself to score. … He needed that one good game, and things can open up and now he can just go out and play and do what he did (Tuesday) on a regular basis.”
With the Capitals playing back-to-back against the Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights (Saturday), backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer (2-5-1) may start in Arizona, with Holtby starting in Vegas despite his 4-1 record against Arizona.
Tocchet also might start his backup, Scott Wedgewood (3-6-3), on Friday, with Raanta then going Saturday night in Arizona against the Colorado Avalanche.