A night after taking a 3-2 overtime victory over the Arizona Coyotes on home ice, the Caps are back on the road with a quick trip up to Buffalo to take on the Sabres. With Tuesday's game against Buffalo, the Caps will have faced all eight Atlantic Division teams once this season; they're 4-2-1 against Atlantic foes in their previous seven games.
Getting On The Back-to-Back Track - Tonight marks the conclusion of the Caps' fourth set of back-to-back games this season, out of a total of 16 sets the Caps must play altogether in 2017-18. With Monday night's win at Capital One Arena, Washington has won the front end of each of its first four sets of back-to-back games this season, but it is still seeking its first victory in the back end of back-to-backs in '17-18.
The Caps have been outscored by a combined 14-4 in their first three back half games this season.
"I just think the start is crucial," says Caps defenseman John Carlson, when queried as to what the Caps may have learned from their first three sets of back-to-backs that might help them against the Sabres on Tuesday. "You get everyone into it early, and you can kind of not lose it in the first 10 minutes, I would say. I think sometimes when you come out a little dreary and tired and you let them take it to you, it's tough to recapture the momentum. I think those first 10 minutes, getting everyone energized and ramped up [is important], then it becomes a normal game again."
Carlson has a point; the Caps have scored only one first-period goal in the back end of their three previous sets of back-to-backs. And they haven't led at any point in any of those three games.
"I always talk about back-to-backs," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "They're tougher than they appear. Everybody looks at like we're going to Buffalo. Well, we're going to Dulles, and then we're getting on a plane, and we're getting [into Buffalo] really late, and the other team is sitting there fresh.
"It does add up, because you extend guys like [Nicklas Backstrom] and those guys who play 20 minutes a night, guys like John Carlson and Brooks Orpik. They're logging a lot of minutes, so you have to be really mentally strong on staying with the game plan. And in so many of our back-to-backs, we've had good first periods. But it falls apart a little bit in the second, because now you're a little bit tired; you've played four periods in less than 24 hours.
"You have those long changes [in the second period] and now you get almost to the red line and you want to make one more play, and you turn it over, and now you're getting extended. And that just compounds.
"I think in back-to-backs, we talk about being mentally tough in just getting your job done in the moment, whatever that moment is. It's executing that play, and just keeping it simple. We talk about a simple road game, back-to-backs is where you really want to keep it simple and smart. And everybody stay patient in the process of, 'Hey, if we have to get [the puck] in 50 times in one period, we will.'
"We shorten the game, we manage our energy, and if we get an opportunity, maybe we can capitalize. But it's a hard game to play when you're not managing it, or you're mentally not strong to handle those situations where you're a little bit tired and you've got to take those extra two feet. You don't take it, you dump it in [and you're called for] icing, and now you're in it again.
"Little things like that add up in the back-to-backs. To me, it's more about mental toughness than it is about conditioning or anything like that, because there are some tough trips in the back-to-backs."
Green Blueline - With four of their top six defensemen out of the lineup tonight, the Sabres are expected to go with a bit of patchwork outfit that is a little short on experience.
Led by Marco Scandella's 387 career games, Buffalo's six blueliners have a combined total of 973 games worth of NHL experience, or three-quarters of season more than Caps vet Brooks Orpik (916) has all by himself.
Scandella spent the first seven seasons of his NHL career with the Minnesota Wild. In his first season with the Sabres, he is averaging a career high 23:16 of ice time per night, about five minutes more per game than he skated last season with the Wild.
Top Heavy - Buffalo boasts one of the hottest and most consistent forward trios in the league right now in Evander Kane, Jack Eichel and Jason Pominville. Those three skaters have combined to score more than a goal a game this season, accounting for nearly half (17 of 35) of Buffalo's goals this season.
"I always try to use multiple lines against them," says Trotz, when asked who he handles a hot line. "Make sure you're on the right side of the puck, make sure you're making good decisions, and defend from the inside out against those guys. It is just like what every team does when they're out there against [Evgeny] Kuznetsov and [Alex] Ovechkin, or [Nicklas] Backstrom and [T.J.] Oshie. Everydboy does the same thing.
"Top guys are usually playing against the top pairs and the top players from the opposition. That's what makes them great players; that's why they get paid the big money, because they go head-to-head. And at the end of the day, the stronger group wins."
The Sabres' second unit hasn't exactly been slacking, either. The threesome of Benoit Pouliot, Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo has put up 10 goals in 14 games. But that also means that the Sabres' bottom six and its entire blueline brigade has chipped in with a total of eight goals to date.
Buffalo is still seeking its first goal from the blueline this season. The Sabres are the only team in the league that has yet to get a lamplighter from its defense in 2017-18.
In The Nets - Philipp Grubauer gets the start in goal for the Capitals tonight, his fifth start of the season. Grubauer's first start of the season came on Oct. 9 against the Lightning in Tampa, and that is his only start of the season that was not the second game of a set of back-to-backs for Washington. That Oct. 9 start is also the only start in which Grubauer has had the luxury of playing with a lead this season.
Washington scored three times in Grubauer's first start, and twice in his second. The Caps have scored exactly one goal in each of his last two starts.
Grubauer has played a grand total of 265 minutes this season, but has played with the lead for just 34:04 of that time, all of it in that Oct. 9 against the Lightning. Since the third period of that game, Grubauer has played 213 minutes and 54 seconds consecutively without his team owning a lead at any point of the contest.
Robin Lehner is expected to be between the pipes for Buffalo against the Capitals. On the season, Lehner is 3-5-1 with a shutout, a 3.25 GAA and an .896 save pct. Lifetime against the Capitals, he is 0-2-1 with a 2.66 GAA and a .911 save pct. in three appearances.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and the Sabres to look on Tuesday night when they take to the ice at KeyBank Center for the first of their three meetings this season:
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 25-Smith-Pelly
18-Stephenson, 20-Eller, 43-Wilson
87-O'Brien, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
2-Niskanen (upper body, week-to-week)
10-Connolly (upper body)
65-Burakovsky (upper body, week-to-week)
91-Graovac (upper body, week-to-week)
9-Kane, 15-Eichel, 29-Pominville
67-Pouliot, 90-O'Reilly, 21-Okposo
13-Baptiste, 23-Reinhart, 25-Griffeth
28-Girgensons, 22-Larsson, 17-Nolan
4-Gorges (lower body)
47-Bogosian (lower body)
55-Ristolainen (upper body, day-to-day)
82-Beaulieu (upper body)
95-Bailey (lower body, day-to-day)