ANOTHER MONUMENTAL CLIMB FOR WASHINGTON:

The Washington Capitals have begun an ascent similar to the one from last season towards the top of the NHL's eastern Conference. Having won their last three games, and seven of their last 10, Washington is now tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins with 50 points, but as a result of having more wins (24), are seventh in the East.

The Capitals once trailed the Southeast leading Florida Panther by seven points in the division, but now are just one point behind the Cats. Since starting the season 18-9-6, the Panthers have gone 3-5-3, allowing the Capitals to gain momentum as they seek their fifth straight Southeast division title.

Washington is on a virtual identical path to the one they took last season. Through 43 games last season, the Caps were 24-12-7, and trailed the Tampa Bay Lightning by two points after losing their 44th game 3-0 last January -12.

This season, the caps are 24-17-2, and host the New York Islanders tonight, who are ties with the above mentioned Lightning for the least amount of points (38) in the Eastern Conference. 

IT’S HARD NOT TO LIKE ORLOV:

If you have been paying attention to the Washington capitals, then it is hard not to notice Dmitry Orlov when he is on the ice. It’s hard not to like, or love, the way the 20-year-old Russian plays defense for the Washington Capitals. He hustles to almost every loose puck, makes smart decisions with the puck, and is as quick as any defenseman I’ve seen in many years getting out of his own zone.

His mistakes are physical, and rarely mental. Meaning, when he does make a mistake, it’s usually because he’s a rookie in the NHL and doesn’t have the experience. But lookout NHL when he does become more experienced.

Orlov’s hustle resulted in his first NHL goal during the Capitals 2-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday. Orlov led the initial rush out of his own zone with a pass to Jason Chimera. Orlov caught up with the play at the blue line and then pinched down the left side as Chimmy trailed with the puck. Chimera then feathered either a choppy pass, or knuckle ball towards to Hurricane goalie Cam Ward. The Canes back stopper knocked down the bouncing puck, but Orlov’s hustle and stick banged the rebound past Ward for the go ahead goal.

Orlov’s first-career NHL goal was also the game-winning goal on Sunday against Carolina. He became the second Capital to score his first NHL goal this season (Cody Eakin) and the first Capital to record a game-winning goal on his first NHL goal since Quintin Laing scored the game-winner in a 3-2 win over New Jersey on Dec. 10, 2007.

For the year the Capitals' second-round choice, 55th overall, in the 2009 Entry Draft has six assists, and is a minus-2. He averages 16:18 of ice time per game, which is a lot for a rookie blue liner.

HOME COOKING:

The Washington Capitals have always been tough at home. Whether it was at the old Capital Center
in Landover Maryland, or at the Verizon Center in downtown D.C. Despite their troubles at times this season, Washington is again tough to beat when wearing the red jerseys.

Washington has the best home winning percentage of any team in the East and fourth best in the NHL this season. Currently, the Caps have won seven games in a row and are 17-5-1 at the big phone booth this season.

Washington's last loss on home ice came to the Philadelphia Flyers back on december-13. Washington has won impressively during the seven game home winning streak, especially on the defense. 

The Capitals have outscored their opposition by a combined 21-8, and have not trailed at all in any of those games. The most remarkable stat for a Washington team that has made a living allowing the first goal of the game since the start of last season is that the Caps have scored the first goal in each game of the home winning streak. 

The bad news is that the Caps are 7-12-1 on the road this season. The importance of winning the division will rein supreme for head coach Dale Hunter and his team. No matter what the Caps record by the end of the season, a fifth straight division title guarantees that they would be no less than a No.3 seed, and home ice for at least the first round of the playoffs.

CAPITALS NOT GOING GREEN:

In what can only be described as a very frustrating situation for the Capitals and their fans, more bad news was learned on Monday when it was learned that Capitals All-Star defenseman Mike Green will undergo an abdominal surgery and will miss four to six weeks. 

Green, a two-time Norris Trophy finalist, was placed on the long-term injured list last week. He has played in just 10 of Washington’s 43 games this season, and missed 23 games from Nov. 12 to Jan. 3 with a strained right groin muscle. On Jan. 7, just two games back from the groin injury; he aggravated the same injury against San Jose, and was forced to leave the game after playing just 7 minutes 11 seconds.

According to a league source, and reported by the Washington Post, the surgery, which is scheduled for Tuesday, is to repair the damage from the now-chronic groin injury. I'm not a doctor and have no idea how abdominal surgery fixes a groin, but Green is expected back sometime around the NHL's trade deadline, which is Feb-27.

The situation is so frustrating because with a healthy Green on the ice, the Capitals record is vastly different. They are 9-1-0 with him in the lineup and 15-16-2 without him. Having a healthy Mike Green is as rare as finding the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

You would think the Caps should be used to playing without him, especially when you consider that spanning Washington's last 80 games including the post season, but their record indicates otherwise.

Green has appeared in only 20 of the Capitals’ 80 regular and postseason games dating back to Feb. 8, 2011. He was unable to finish five of those games because of injury, and you can bet Caps GM George McPhee will consider all of this very heavily when deciding what to do with the 26-year-old restricted free agent this off season.

In case you forgot his number is 52 and he is in the final year of a four-year contract worth $21 million. Green is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, and if the Caps want to retain his negotiating rights in the offseason, McPhee will have to justify submitting a qualifying offer of a one-year deal worth $5 million.

And you thought I was talking about something else when I labeled this segment Capitals Not Going Green.

There is one more injury of note that currently has the Caps concerned. Center Nicklas Backstrom missed his fifth game on Sunday still suffering from a head injury. Ironically, Backstrom's amount of time missed is the exact amount of suspension time that NHL Sheriff Brendan Shanahan delivered to Renee Bourque after he delivered an unnecessary elbow cheap shot to Backstrom’s head when he was a member of the Calgary Flames.

Bourque was traded to Montreal in a sizable deal last week. The Habs sent the disgruntled Mike Cammalleri, goaltender Kari Rammo, and a 5th round pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft to Calgary in exchange for Cree Metis, Bourque, prospect Patrick Holland and a 2013 2nd round pick.

Backstrom, who is still the Caps leading scorer with 42 points, may not return until after the All-Star, which is 11-days away. According to an article written by Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times, there’s no indication of when Backstrom will be back. With head injuries, symptoms can change from day to day, and that is exactly how the Caps have him listed.

VOKOUN STANDING TALL:

After an inconsistent start to the season by his standards, Caps starting goalie looks to be in playoff form. Vokoun deserves a lot of the credit for Capitals recent success at home. He is 14-3 with 2.03 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in his 17 starts at Verizon Center this season, including a 7-2 record with a 1.80 GAA and .944 save percentage in his last 10 appearances.

He recorded his second shutout of the season, making 30 saves to backstop the Capitals to a 1-0 victory over Pittsburgh on Jan. 11. The shutout was the 46th of Vokoun’s career, tying him for 26th all-time with Hall-of-Famer Ken Dryden. Vokoun also ranks fourth among active goaltenders in career shutouts, trailing Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Evgeni Nabokov.

While it is highly probable he gets the nod tonight at home vs. the Islanders, it is not a certainty as both he and back-up Michael Neuvirth have had career success against New York.

Vokoun is 14-6-0-1 with a 2.07 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and four shutouts in 26 career games against New York while Neuvirth is 3-0-0 with a 1.19 goals-against average in four career games against the Islanders (3-0-0 last season).

WHO'S HOT?

Alex Ovechkin (assist), Alexander Semin (goal) and Marcus Johansson (assist) all recorded points during the Caps win on Sunday against Carolina.

Ovechkin (8g-5a) and Semin (6g-7a) each have 13 points in their last 12 games while Johansson has recorded 10 points (3g-7a) in his last 12 games. Only once in the last 14 games has Ovechkin, Semin or Johansson failed to register at least one point, and it is showing up for the Caps in the win column. Washington is 9-4-1 during that stretch.

Also hot is Troy Brouwer, who recorded his first-career hat trick on Friday in a 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Brouwer’s hat trick was the first by a Capital this season and the first since Alexander Semin scored three times against Anaheim in a 7-6 win on Feb. 16, 2011.

The Great 8 seems to be getting this whole Captain thing. On Sunday during the Carolina game, Ovie delivered a thunderous hit to the Canes Tuomo Ruutu. This is a quiet rivalry building with several incidents to point to along the way. 

Ruutu seemed to fire the first shot when he took a cheap at Nicklas Backstrom during a game in March of 2010. Ruutu has decked Ovie a few times, but last March when the Canes Finish forward stuck out his leg and finished Dennis Wideman’s season, Ovechkin took exception and went after him. It's a pretty good bet that Ovie has been looking for a good time to punish Ruutu for that and saw an opportunity Sunday. Stay tuned as the two teams meet again Friday night in Raleigh.

SPEAKING OF OVIE AND WIDEMAN:

Alex Ovechkin and Dennis Wideman were named to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game. Ovechkin will be making his fifth consecutive NHL All-Star appearance, tying the Capitals club record set by Peter Bondra. He currently leads the Capitals in goals (18), shots (162) and power-play goals (7) and ranks second on the team in points (35) and hits (119).

Wideman will be making his first appearance at an NHL All-Star Game. The Kitchener, Ontario, native currently ranks fifth in the league among defensemen in points (31), tied for fourth in goals (8) and tied for fifth in assists (23).

TONIGHT'S GAME:

As stated earlier, the Caps look to close out a four game home stand by winning their fourth game in a row tonight. This is the second meeting of the season between the two teams as the Caps dropped a 5-3 decision in New York on Nov. 5. Washington leads, 91-60-13-3, entering the 188th meeting, and is 47-33-11-2 at home all-time. 

The Capitals are 11-1-1 in their last 13 games against the Islanders. In that span, Washington has outscored New York 47-32, and is 5-0-1 in its last six matchups at home against New York and has not lost to the Islanders in regulation on home ice since Oct. 18, 2007 (5-2 loss). 

The Isles entered the new year after posting a 6-6-2 record in December, their best month of the season. New York has currently won five of their last nine games (5-4). Part of the Isles inconsistencies are between the pipes.

Last season six different goalies back stopped the team, and this season hasn't been much better as five different net minders have seen action. Veteran Evgeni Nabokov leads the team with seven wins this season, and became the 26th goalie in NHL history to reach the 300-win plateau on Saturday when he defeated the Buffalo Sabres 4-2.

According to NHL.com, it is likely that Nabokov will get the start tonight. Nabokov was a backup Monday to Kevin Poulin, who was making his second start of the season. Poulin gave up three goals on the first six shots he saw, and finished with 29 saves, as the Isles were beaten 3-1 by Nashville at home.

New York is the fourth straight team on this homestand to come into Verizon Center having played a game at home the day or night before.

On special teams, the Isles power play is improving. New York’s extra man unit ranks ninth in the NHL this season with a success rate of 18.8 percent.

John Tavares is the Islanders’ leading scorer with 43 points this season. He has 13 of those points on the power play with five goals, and eight assists. Defenseman Mark Streit leads the Islanders in power play scoring. He has 15 (one goal, 14 assists) of his 23 points with the extra man.

Tavares, who will represent the Isles at this year's All-Star game, also has a quiet nine game point scoring streak working. Tavares has five goals and 11 assists for 16 points during his points scoring streak. 

Linemates Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo have combined for six goals and six assists in the past four contests. 

All four contests between the two teams last season were one goal games. Dating back two seasons, including this year’s 5-2 loss by the Caps, seven of the past nine have been decide by just one goal. The Capitals who are 12-5-2 in one-goal games this season, won six of the seven single point affairs vs. New York, including all four last year.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK:

“With Mike we’ve been dealing with that all season long. It sounds bad, but that’s nothing new. We’re used to it almost.”- Troy Brouwer after Mike Green re-injured his groin. (Washington Post)

 “There’s always room for improvement as every coach will say about their team. You’re never satisfied. But the work ethic is there; that’s what I worry about the most.”- Caps Coach Dale Hunter when asked about the fact that Carolina fired 82 shots toward the net to just 38 for Washington in Sunday’s game; the Canes had more shots on net (44) than the Capitals had total shots attempted. (Washington Capitals.com)

“The All-Star break’s close — 11 days — we’re monitoring him, and we’ll see how he is, day-to-day how he is. As it gets closer, it could be the call, too, but we don’t know for sure.”- Hunter once again when asked about if the Caps are holding Nicklas Backstrom until after All-Star Game. (Washington Times)

TWO STATS FOR THE ROAD:

The Capitals are 14-0-0 this season when leading after two periods, one of just five teams that have not lost when leading going into the third period. Washington’s 50 third-period goals are tied for fourth in the league and the 38 goals allowed in the final frame are tied for 11th in the league.

Led by All-Star Dennis Wideman, Washington’s 10 blue liners have a combined 19 goals and 70 assists for 89 points in the team’s 43 games this season. A defenseman has contributed at least one point in 36 of Washington’s 43 games this year.

* The Capitals media notes and teams web site were used for this report.