March 1 vs. Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
Washington Capitals 39-19-6
Minnesota Wild 32-25-7
The Caps start off March on Sunday night in Minnesota where they will go up against the Wild in St. Paul. Sunday's game is Washington's last contest outside the Eastern Time Zone this season, and the Capitals will be seeking to put a halt to a four-game road losing streak, their longest of the season.
Washington started off a two-game road trip on Thursday night in Winnipeg, absorbing a 3-0 whitewashing at the hands of the Jets and netminder Connor Hellebuyck (34 saves). The Caps have been blanked only twice in 64 games this season, and Thursday's shutout came after they netted eight goals in their two previous contests.
March is Washington's busiest month of the season; the Caps will play 16 of their remaining 18 contests this month, including three sets of back-to-back games. The March slate is evenly split with eight home and eight road games, and the Caps will finish off the regular season with a pair of games in the first four days of April.
As the month begins, the Metropolitan Division standings have tightened considerably. Washington occupies the top spot, but heading into Saturday's slate of NHL activity, the Philadelphia Flyers have supplanted the Pittsburgh Penguins in second place in the Metro. Seven of the league's top 15 teams now reside in the Metro, and those seven clubs are separated by just 10 points in the standings. A maximum of five Metro teams will make the playoffs, and the Caps - who are 6-8-1 in 15 games since returning from their midseason break - know that this is the time to start shaping and molding their game into playoff readiness, as they've successfully done the last few years at this time.
Over the last four seasons, Washington has rolled up an aggregate record of 41-17-2 after the NHL's trade deadline, a pace that would translate to a 114-point season if maintained over the length of a full 82-game season. In each of the last two seasons, that strong finishing kick followed a lengthy stretch of uneven play, similar to the one the Caps seem to be emerging from now.
"For certain any of those past experiences are great," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "Among things to go back on, at different times we introduce certain things, showed a little bit more video, preparing all areas of our game so that you're not in Game 4 of a [playoff] series and you're still working on something. Yeah, you're going to be able to make small adjustments, but those are already adjustments that you've made during the year at different points to combat a certain strategy by an opposition.
Video: Reirden | February 29
"It's easier for us to focus on those things when you know the end game is near and what you're working towards. It allows the players to have to focus once they know that we're getting down to the teens in terms of games left, and certainly this year is different than in the past in that is extremely competitive in the Metro Division, so I think it'll heighten the importance of all those games as well."
Minnesota figures to be as desperate as the Jets were. The Wild is embroiled in its own spirited battle for playoff positioning in the Western Conference, and since making a coaching change in mid-February, Minnesota has pushed itself to the fringes of the chase.
Under former Caps bench boss Bruce Boudreau, the Wild was 27-23-7 through its first 57 games of the campaign. Dean Evason - a Caps assistant coach for several seasons under Boudreau and Dale Hunter - took over the reins as the interim head coach in Minnesota, and he has delivered some solid early results.
San Jose shutout the Wild at home in Evason's debut on Feb. 15, but Minnesota has won five of six since, and it brings a three-game winning streak into Sunday's game with Washington. The Wild just came back from a set of back-to-back road games, where it swept its way through wins in Detroit (7-1) on Thursday and Columbus (5-0) on Friday.
The hot spell has pushed the Wild to within a point of Nashville, which currently occupies the second wild card playoff slot in the Western Conference standings. Minnesota hosts the Predators in St. Paul on Tuesday night.
Minnesota has piled up 17 goals in its last three games, and ex-Predator Kevin Fiala has posted multi-point efforts in all three. The offensive outburst matches the best three-game spree in the Wild's franchise history; it also scored 17 goals in a three-game span from April 7-11, 2009. Evason coached Fiala at AHL Milwaukee from 2014-17, when both were in the Nashville organization.
Fiala racked up 19 points (10 goals, nine assists) in 14 February games. In Minnesota's franchise history, only two players - Brian Rolston and Eric Staal - have scored more points in a single month. Both players had 21 points, Rolston in Dec. of 2005 and Staal in Feb. of 2018.