Washington opens up its annual three-game journey through California on Tuesday night in Anaheim against the Ducks. Last season, the Caps came home empty-handed (0-3-0) from their three-game California excursion.
"The key is just getting that first one there," says Caps coach Barry Trotz, "and hopefully getting some momentum building on that. They play similar, they play a pretty good grind game, and they've got some speed elements in every one of those lineups. It's just staying focused on playing your game because you're not as familiar with them."
Video: Barry Trotz Pregame | March 6
When the Caps lost three straight out here last season, the trip started in San Jose and ended with a set of back-to-backs in Los Angeles and Anaheim, respectively. This time around, the order of the cities is reversed, and Washington won't be forced to play three games in four nights - three zones away - as it was last season.
In the wake of Saturday's win over Toronto in the 2018 Stadium Series game in Annapolis, the Capitals have won two in a row and three of their last four games. They have not been able to piece together as many as three straight victories since their five-game winning streak came to an end nearly two months ago, on Jan. 9.
"You've got to have the same mentality you had in the Stadium [Series] game," says Trotz of the upcoming trip. "You're going to have to manage the puck, you're going to have to be disciplined in areas, you're going to have to work as a group, and you're going to need contributions right through the lineup. It's a grind, it's a battle; all of those [California] teams are good."
Video: Two-Man Advantage | March 6
Where the Rubber Meets The Road - Washington faces a difficult stretch of games to start the month of March. After downing the Maple Leafs - who were 9-1-2 in their previous dozen games - on Saturday, and facing the three California clubs on the road, the Caps will come home to host Winnipeg next Monday.
"We'd really like to keep our position in the standings right now," says Trotz, "and there are a couple of teams right behind us. So it is a good test.
"I think as we get down into the last 16, 17 games here, you find that in previous years we had a lot of room to work with [in the standings]. [This year], we don't. So I think you're going to see some desperation in our game, which I think will make us better going forward.
"On this trip, the first thing that happens is the time changes. Your body clock is a little bit off, so you've got to manage that. There is no question it will be off a little bit. At the same time, you've got to manage it right, manage the game, rely on the guy next to you, making sure he's doing his job, you make sure you do your job. That's usually the biggest thing you have to do, get the legs going and get through that first period is a real key when you get out there. And once you're out there, you settle in and you find that the first one is always a little more difficult because of the time change and the travel."
It's been nearly two months since the Caps have been able to string as many as three straight wins together, but they have an opportunity to do so tonight against the Ducks in Anaheim. Although Washington is just 10-8-4 in its last 22 games, it still owns the league's seventh best record from a points percentage (.623) perspective.
"I think it's a matter of making sure that we continue to focus on building our game," says Caps center Jay Beagle. "If I've learned anything about the playoffs, as cheesy as it sounds, it has to start now. We've had leads - big leads - going into the playoffs, and being the best team but not playing our best going into the playoffs, and not really even knowing it until you hit the playoffs, and then being like, 'Oh, no!'
"There is another level, and it's hard to turn that switch on that day or that week, even. It's hard to do it. At least for me, I feel like I have to start building now and my game has to be the best it's been, and I have to build it and focus on being a my best for the time that really matters.
"I think not having that huge lead is going to help this year, and also making sure that it starts now with this road trip against some really good teams. Let's go after them, start to play our way and start to build our game."
Video: Braden Holtby Pregame | March 6
13th Floor Elevator - Caps winger Jakub Vrana scored Washington's fifth goal in its 5-2 win over Toronto in Saturday night's Stadium Series game in Annapolis. Vrana beat Toronto's Frederik Andersen through the five-hole on a breakaway midway through the second period.
The goal ended a 25-game drought for Vrana, and it came a game after he just missed scoring on another breakaway against Ottawa's Mike Condon. Vrana beat Condon, but lifted the puck just a shade too high as it went over the crossbar. That miss was in the back of his mind when Vrana skated in alone on Andersen.
"I was actually thinking about it because [against Ottawa]," says Vrana, "I went backhand/forehand and I shot high. And then in the other game, I got another breakaway and I was just thinking maybe I could keep it simple. I saw a little space there between the legs and I just tried to shoot it quick, and it went it. I was happy for that one."
Vrana netted 10 goals in his first 32 games this season before hitting his lengthy dry spell. The hope now is that he might go on a little bit of a scoring spree.
"I just tried to work hard and focus on the little things I can do on the ice," says Vrana. "I just tried to play my game a little bit, too, and try to play the system. I'm trying to get more pucks to the net and be a little bit hungrier around the net.
"I'm trying to be part of the line and keep the chemistry going. We had a pretty good last two games, and this is a good challenge coming up for us, and I'm very excited for it."
After netting 35 goals in 91 games at the AHL level, Vrana's hot start this season had many believing he has 20-goal potential in the NHL. He probably does, but he just turned 22, and will play in his 80th NHL game tonight in Anaheim.
"It's been kind of a tough time for me," admits Vrana. "I couldn't find the back of the net for around 25 games or something like that. It had been a really struggling time for me, when you call yourself a goal scorer and then you can't score a goal. It gets in your head a little bit, and it was a big relief for me. It just gives me a little more confidence now for the games coming up."
Video: Matt Niskanen Pregame | March 6
Middle Men - Tuesday's tilt pits a pair of clubs who are strong down the middle of the ice. The Caps boast Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller and Beagle up the middle while the Ducks counter with Ryan Getzlaf, Adam Henrique and Ryan Kesler. Anaheim has Derek Grant currently centering its fourth line, but it also has Antoine Vermette, who currently ranks second in the NHL with a 60.3% face-off success rate.
"They're built through the middle with those guys," says Trotz of the Ducks. "I know a lot about a few of those guys. Getzlaf is really hot right now and he is a big load. He is a fantastic player and when he is on top of his game he is one of the secrets in the league; he can dominate games. He's got the skill and he's got the size.
"Kesler is probably known as a premier shutdown guy with an edge, and a face-off guy. He always tries to disrupt your group and any opposition center man that he's keying on.
"Vermette is a face-off specialist. You go down the list, they're deep. It will be a good challenge for us because a lot of times we have a little advantage at center ice over some teams and a team like Anaheim is going to be really like a playoff situation where you've got a deep team that's deep through the middle, where you're going to have to work for your opportunities."
On the Washington side, Kuznetsov and Backstrom are coming in off three-point games on Saturday, and Beagle has been a beast on the dot for the Caps in his last two games, winning 30 of his 34 face-offs (88.2%). He won 13 of 14 on Saturday against the Maple Leafs.
"I'm not really aware of it," says Beagle of his two-game draw-winning spree. "I think I'm feeling it It's obviously one of those things where it comes and goes. You lose your timing, you've got to work on getting it back and you do a lot of things t try and get that timing back. But I've always said that face-offs are a team stat. There is a lot to do with those draws that are won just halfway back or somewhere where your winger or your [defense] wins it for you.
"So I've been getting a lot of that. The last two games, my timing has felt better on the dot. I feel like I'm seeing it a little better coming out of the linesman's hands. So you run with that."
In The Nets - Three nights after he ended a six-game winless streak (0-4-2) with a 27-save victory over Toronto, Braden Holtby gets the net for Washington against the Ducks, and he will be seeking his 30th victory of the season.
Saturday's start was Holtby's first win since Feb. 9, and the first time he permitted fewer than three goals since Feb. 9 as well. With the end of the regular season now just a month away, the Caps would obviously like to get Holtby rolling in a positive direction.
"The last little bit here," says Holtby, "we felt like we've been doing a lot of good things. Toronto was just a game that went our way in a few areas defensively, and I think we did a lot of similar things. Hockey is like that sometimes. I think today is just building off of that with the mentality that we've been pushing for. I have to just focus on one shot at a time, and to stay in the moment that way."
Holtby is 3-1-0 in four career appearances against Anaheim, with a 2.92 GAA and an .893 save pct.
John Gibson gets the net for Anaheim, and he has been the league's hottest goalie since the All-Star break, leading all of the NHL's starting netminders in GAA (1.93) and save pct. (.942) over that span while positing a 6-1-1 record in his eight starts.
Gibson is still seeking his first career victory against Washington. He is 0-2-2 with a 3.45 GAA and an .888 save pct. in four career appearances against the Capitals.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Ducks to look when they take the ice on Tuesday night at Honda Center in Anaheim:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
18-Stephenson, 83-Beagle, 25-Smith-Pelly
67-Rakell, 15-Getzlaf, 10-Perry
7-Cogliano, 17-Kesler, 33-Silfverberg
37-Ritchie, 14-Henrique, 25-Kase
20-Chimera, 38-Grant, 22-Kelly
18-Eaves (Guillain Barré syndrome)