In the midst of a stretch in which they play five of six games on home ice, the Capitals are in Tampa on Saturday to take on the Lightning in the team's lone road game over that span. With just one win in its last six games (1-4-1), a three-game road losing streak - all in regulation - coming into tonight's game, and two teams immediately behind it in the standings, Washington needs to start streaming some standings points.
Caps coach Barry Trotz left no doubt that he feels the same way.
"We need to take care of business tonight, there is no question," says Trotz. "For us, I think this is an absolute must win for us tonight."
Video: Coach Trotz previews matchup with Tampa Bay
It won't be easy, it rarely is at this time of the season. The Caps are facing a desperate Lightning team that is one point out of the last playoff spot, and a team that's coming off a tough 5-0 loss in its previous game here, on Thursday night against Toronto, the very team it is trying to chase down.
The Lightning is 12-3-3 in its last 18 games.
"A team that is in playoff mode," says Trotz of the Lightning. "They're finding a way to win games. They're missing some people.
"They've been playing really good team defense, they're getting some real good goaltending and they've been getting some timely goals from their big guys, the [Nikita] Kucherovs and those guys are leading the way. Their leaders are leading, they're playing a 200-foot game with a lot of desperation, and I think they're 6-1 in their last seven."
Getting The Band Back Together - Andre Burakovsky returns to the Washington lineup tonight for the first time since Feb. 9 when he sustained a hand injury while blocking a shot against the Detroit Red Wings. The Caps went 7-6-2 in Burakovsky's absence, and he had six goals and 14 points in his previous 14 games when he was sidelined. He will step right into the spot he vacated on the right side of a line with Brett Connolly and Lars Eller.
Video: Andre Burakovsky returns against the Bolts
"It's still going to be sore for a little while yet," says Burakovsky. "The strength in my hand is not really there yet. But I can shoot, I can stickhandle, I can take hits and it feels good. As long as it can't get worse, I'm fine to go.
"It's not 100 percent yet, but I think I'm 100 percent ready to play. I can live with the pain a little bit, still."
For the first time since Feb. 9, the Capitals will ice what has proven to be their most optimal group of 12 forwards tonight against the Lightning. Washington owns a 17-1-2 record in the 20 games in which it has dressed these exact dozen forwards.
"On every line, they complement each other," says Trotz. "I think the complements just seem to fit in terms of pieces. And as I say, when we were having success we were shooting at a higher percentage than the league average there for a little while, so I think that's blown out of proportion a little bit.
"This time of year, everything gets tightened up so your ability to get as many good looks as you had earlier in the year is not there. It's good to have Andre back. Andre is a dynamic young man, and I think he will complement Lars and Conno there."
Video: Connolly on Burakovsky returning to their line
On The Verge Of Clinching - The Caps can clinch a playoff spot tonight in Tampa, and Washington could also be sharing the top spot in the Metropolitan Division by the time it takes the ice on Saturday in Tampa.
The Columbus Blue Jackets play on Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn against the New York Islanders, and if the Jackets win that contest in regulation, they will have the same number of points, regulation/overtime wins and games played as the Capitals, putting the two teams in a dead heat for the division lead.
In that same scenario, the Caps would be able to clinch a playoff berth on Saturday in Tampa. If the Islanders lose in any fashion and the Capitals win in any fashion, Washington will have its ticket punched for the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.
In The Nets - Caps goaltender Braden Holtby has lost four of his last five starts, but he's coming off a strong outing against Nashville in which he came out on the short side of a 2-1 overtime loss. Holtby is back between the pipes for Washington tonight, seeking his 36th win of the season.
Holtby is 20-3-3 in his last 28 starts. Lifetime against the Lightning, he is 8-2-2 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.62 GAA and a .916 save pct. Holtby has stopped 55 of the 56 shots he has faced in his two starts against the Bolts this season. He blanked Tampa Bay on 23 shots back on Dec. 23 in Washington in his most recent start against the Lightning.
For Tampa Bay, Andrei Vasilevskiy gets the nod in net. He was pulled in his last start on Thursday against Toronto, and that was the first time he met that fate since a Dec. 23 start against Capitals in Washington.
Since the Bolts moved Ben Bishop to Los Angeles ahead of the trade deadline, Vasilevskiy has been carrying most of the mail for the Lightning, and he has done so with aplomb. On the season, he is 17-14-6 with a 2.61 GAA and a .917 save pct. But in seven starts in the month of March, Vasilevskiy is 5-1-1 with a 1.95 GAA and a .938 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Lightning and the Capitals to look on Saturday night when they go head-to-head for the last of three times this season at Amalie Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
18-Palat, 21-Point, 86-Kucherov
17-Killorn, 65-Gourde, 27-Drouin
73-Erne, 78-Froese, 28-Witkowski
61-Dumont, 33-McKegg, 23-Brown
9-Johnson (lower body)
13-Paquette (lower body)
24-Callahan (hip surgery)
90-Namestnikov (lower body)
91-Stamkos (lateral meniscus tear in right knee)