The Capitals are now in the final quarter of the 2016-17 NHL regular season, and with the trade deadline in the rear view mirror, the caliber of the opposition can be a bit of a mixed bag at this point of the campaign. By this time of the season, a handful of teams have given up hope of making the playoffs this spring and are positioning themselves for 2017-18.
That list of teams is slowly growing, but it will be a while before the Capitals see any of them. Washington opens a three-game California road trip against the Sharks in San Jose on Thursday, and then it takes on the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks in a weekend set of back-to-backs.
Washington's current road trip starts a stretch of eight straight games in which the Caps face teams that are either firmly ensconced in a playoff position, or are within a few points of a spot with a legitimate chance of getting there.
It should prove to be quite a test for the Capitals as they seek to keep their edge and maintain the top spot in the Metropolitan Division with exactly one month remaining in the season.
Video: Coach Trotz #CapsSharks pregame
"Number one is to be really consistent in our play," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Going into it, you want to prepare yourself on your areas of execution and your details. You need to be really detailed down the stretch because the detail adds to your structure, the structure protects the individuals, and collectively you can be a lot more acute in your preparation."
At this time last season, the Caps had zero in the way of backpressure in the standings, and they somewhat glided their way through the final quarter, posting a record of 11-7-4 over their final 22 games of the campaign. This time around, things are a little tighter. The Caps own a five-point lead over second place Columbus in the Metropolitan Division standings, and because Washington has two games remaining with the Blue Jackets among the 17 still left on the schedule, the Caps need to keep their foot on the gas.
Washington is 5-3-1 in its last nine games since the end of its bye week, and given what's ahead on the schedule over the next couple of weeks, points could be hard to come by for the next little while.
"I think we just need to find our game a little bit," says Caps winger Brett Connolly. "Before the bye week, we were rolling there pretty well. It felt like everybody was finding the back of the net and everybody was playing well. We knew we weren't going to stay that hot for the whole year; it's one of those things where we were playing so well and everything was going in, and everything was working.
Video: Brett Connolly on the challenges of West Coast travel
"You know sometimes you're going to have to win a game 2-1 and teams are tightening up now; it's that time of year when teams need points, no matter if it's one or two, they're scratching and clawing for every point. That makes it tougher every night, because we know we're getting every team's best game. With where we are in the standings, they get up for those games.
"We've just got to try to get our game back to the way it was. We knew it might slip a little bit after the break, but I think we've played pretty well. It's just a matter of finding that confidence again and getting back to playing at that fast pace, getting our offense going and all that."
Start! - The Caps didn't score in the first frame of Monday's game against the Stars, marking the fourth consecutive contest in which they were blanked in the game's first 20 minutes. It's the first time the Caps have gone as many as four straight games without scoring in the first since Nov. 26-Dec. 5.
Not finding the back of the net in the game's first period is obviously not a deal breaker, and Washington maintains the league's best first-period goal differential at plus-38 (67-29). But the Caps' pattern of first-period dominance seems to have mostly deserted them in the nine games they've played since returning from their bye week.
Video: Rinkside Update: Marcus Johansson 3/9/17
"We've got to get back to quicker starts," says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. "Find a way to score a few more goals; that was probably the main reason we were winning those games the way we were, because we were scoring a ton of goals and it has dried up just a little bit right now. If we're not going to do that, then we can't have any turnovers and we've got to play tighter in our own end."
Scoring in the first or even scoring first is not necessarily what the Caps are looking for. They just need a more even effort over 60 minutes. For the most part, they've played very well in the second and third periods of their last nine games, since returning from the bye week.
"Just come out and be ready, and not wait around to see what's going to happen," says Caps forward Marcus Johansson. "When we play our way from the start and let them adjust to us, that's when we're at our best. If we do that, it doesn't matter what team we play, we're going to be successful. If we find a way to do that from the start and let them adjust to us, I think it's going to be a good night."
The Great 88 - Defenseman Brent Burns leads the Sharks with 27 goals and 67 points, and he is one of four 20-goal scorers for San Jose to this point of the season. Three of San Jose's top six forwards also have 20 goals, but with 17 games remaining, none of the other Sharks have reached the double-digit level.
Burns ranks among the league's top 10 scorers, leads all defensemen in scoring by nine points over his nearest pursuer and has a dozen more goals than any other rearguard in the league.
A rare bird in the modern NHL, Burns has moved seamlessly back and forth from the wing position to the blueline over the course of his NHL career, and he is poised to become the first defenseman to score 30 goals in a season since Washington's Mike Green netted 31 in 2008-09.
Burns has had nine multi-goal games since joining the Sharks in a trade with the Minnesota Wild before the start of the 2011-12 season, tied with Montreal's Shea Weber for the most among all NHL defensemen over that span.
For the Caps, one key to neutralizing Burns is being aware when and where he is on the ice.
"Just know where the hell he is, because he's all over," says Trotz, referring to Burns. "What an exceptional player he is, and a human. I got to work with him a little bit with the Team Canada group, and you talk about personality, you talk about talent, you talk about having a year, I can't think of a player in the league who's having a more impressive year than Brent Burns.
"We've just got to know where he is. And the tricky thing is, he doesn't always use a big slapshot or anything. He's got that sweeping wrister or whatever we want to call it, but he gets it through and it has some zip to it."
Burns has a dozen goals and 32 points in just 28 games since the calendar turned to 2017. He leads the league in shots on goal and has a chance to be the first defenseman to pace the circuit in shots on net since Boston's Raymond Bourque did so during the lockout-abbreviated 1994-95 campaign.
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net again tonight in San Jose, three nights after he was pulled early in the second period of the Caps' 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars at Verizon Center. Holtby allowed three goals on 11 shots in that game, but deserved a much better fate and didn't play nearly as bad as those numbers would indicate.
The Caps have won only two of their last 11 games against San Jose, and Holtby owns both of those victories, both of which came here in San Jose. Lifetime against the Sharks, Holtby is 2-3-0 with a 3.68 GAA and an .881 save pct.
Martin Jones starts for the Sharks in a game that pits two of the NHL's eight goalies who've racked up at least 30 wins thus far in 2016-17. Jones has now reached that plateau in each of his two seasons as the Sharks' No. 1 netminder; he earned his 30th win in his final start of February against Toronto.
Jones has proven difficult for the Caps to solve; he is 3-0-0 in three career starts against Washington, with two shutouts a 0.67 GAA and a .975 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and Sharks to look when they take to the ice on Thursday night at SAP Center in the opener of Washington's three-game California road trip.
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 13-Vrana
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
36-Hansen, 19-Thornton, 8-Pavelski
12-Marleau, 39-Couture, 89-Boedker
27-Donskoi, 48-Hertl, 68-Karlsson
38-Haley, 50-Tierney, 42-Ward
5-Schlemko (lower body)