It was exactly two weeks ago tonight that the Caps and Wild met for the first time this season back in the District. Washington entered the contest on a four-game slide, its first four-game losing streak in about two and a half years. With 95 points, the Caps were in a flat-footed tie with Pittsburgh for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, and Columbus was just a point behind the Caps and Pens.
The Wild came into town on the heels of a 4-2 loss to the Blackhawks in Chicago, but Minnesota was still in front in the Central Division with 92 points, one point ahead of the Hawks.
The Caps handed the Wild a 4-2 setback that night, and Washington has used that victory as a springboard to a 5-0-1 mark in its last six games. Meanwhile, the Wild is scuffling; Minnesota has won just one of its last nine games (1-7-1) and is mired in its deepest slump of the season.
"I like the fact that we got people to the net," says Caps coach Barry Trotz of his team's performance in that March 14 contest against the Wild. "We were net hungry in that game. I thought we played with a lot of pace.
Video: Coach Trotz previews the matchup with the Wild
"I thought we had a couple of shifts there where we sort of gave it back to them and got them back into the game, but I like the fact that we were really going to the net with more of a shot mentality - a shoot to create mentality - than we had, because we hadn't scored a lot before that.
"We went out on that [California] trip and we weren't scoring. We were sort of on the perimeter. I thought we got back to getting to the inside a little bit more, and that's where it started. But it was the pace and getting to the net, and that's where we started producing goals."
Coming into its first meeting with Minnesota this season, Washington had gone six straight games without scoring more than two goals. The Caps have now scored four or more in four of their last six contests.
"I thought we just capitalized on our chances," says Caps left wing Daniel Winnik. "I think that's really when we started our shot mentality. We flung a lot of pucks toward the net from everywhere, and it created confusion for them in the [defensive] zone, and we had bodies there. I think it just wore them down as the game went on."
In recent games, the Caps have dominated in terms of possession and shot attempts, and they've been better at maximizing their time with the puck by getting shots on goal and scoring chances, rather than just simply possessing the puck.
"I think we're putting that emphasis on the net front presence and we're crashing [the net]," says Winnik. "You see some teams and they just get it and throw it at the net, and it creates confusion for us. It's tough, and I think when we're doing that, we're at our best."
Video: Rinkside Update: Tom Wilson
Road Tripping - The Caps start off their longest road trip of the season - and, in fact, their longest road trip since Feb. 2011 - on Tuesday night against the Wild in Minnesota. The Capitals will spend nine days on the road, playing five games in a span of eight nights in four time zones. And when it's all over, they'll head right back home for another game the very next night against the New York Rangers at Verizon Center.
Although the Caps have only eight games remaining this season, they still face the specter of three sets of back-to-back games as they try to nurse what is currently a three-point lead in the Metro Division to a second straight division title. A second- or third-place finish in the Metro would result in a much tougher path toward winning the Stanley Cup, starting with a formidable first-round foe that could finish with upwards of 110 points.
"We don't want to focus too much on standings," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "We're focused on where we want to try to get to. But at the same time, we do want to have success because everyone is obviously talking about the playoff structure, and it's a big difference with who you play in round one, whether you play one of the best teams or the way it should be."
Washington's last multi-game road trip didn't go well at all. The Caps went 0-3-0 on a three-game California tour earlier this month. The condensed schedule didn't help; the Caps played three games in just four nights on the coast, a departure from their more leisurely trips to the Golden State in recent seasons.
"I think last trip, things snowballed on us pretty quickly," says Holtby. "I think we weren't really used to having such a condensed California trip. I think usually that's where we had some team bonding time, and every year it's been like that. I think it was a little bit of shock for us that it was nothing but hockey out there. I think that got us a bit.
"But we learned from it. We realized when we came home that we had to refocus and I think we did. This trip will be a lot better."
The Caps start off the trip with their last three games this season against Western Conference foes. Washington is 17-7-1 against Western clubs in 2016-17.
Wild Night - Despite their recent struggles, Minnesota has to be seen as a team that can make some noise in the postseason. In their first season under former Caps bench boss Bruce Boudreau, the Wild is in the midst of one of the best seasons in franchise history.
"Depth," answers Trotz when asked what impresses him about the Wild. "I thought they were really strong up the middle. Their defense, especially on the right side are very active offensively. They can hurt you in a lot of ways. They're dangerous, and a real complete team."
Minnesota acquired hulking center Martin Hanzal from the Arizona Coyotes ahead of the trade deadline last month, but Hanzal missed the March 14 game between Washington and the Wild back in the District. Hanzal will play tonight, and his presence puts a bit of a different paint job on the contest here tonight.
"You look at their top three lines," says Trotz, "[Hanzal] has generally been on a checking line, but I think they've got a combined 144 points. Their next line has 160 and the other one has 170-something. They've got really good balance through their top nine, and then they've got a real physical line with [Ryan] White and [Chris] Stewart and [Eric] Haula in the middle with some speed.
"They give us a lot of strength up the middle. [Eric] Staal is big, Hanzal is big and [Mikko] Koivu is pretty good sized. So they're big up the middle. Haula is the guy who is probably smallest of the group, and he can fly. So to me, they're strong in the middle. They've got some dangerous people on the wings, but their top nine are really good."
In The Nets - Holtby gets the start tonight for Washington. He will be seeking his fifth straight victory, and his 40th on the season. If Holtby is able to nail down that 40th win, he will become just the third goaltender in NHL history to record 40 or more victories in three consecutive seasons. He would join Martin Brodeur and Evgeni Nabokov on that short list.
Lifetime against Minnesota, Holtby is 6-2-0 in eight appearances with a shutout, a 2.24 GAA and a .923 save pct.
For Minnesota, we expect to see Devan Dubnyk in goal on Tuesday night against the Caps. Coming into the month of March, Dubnyk had suffered a total of 11 regulation losses in 48 games played this season. Thus far in March, Dubnyk is 3-8-1 with a 2.76 GAA and an .898 save pct in 13 appearances.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Dubnyk is 2-4-0 in six appearances with a 3.39 GAA and an .893 save pct.
All Lined Up - The Caps open a five-game road trip on Tuesday in St. Paul against the Minnesota Wild, and here's how we expect the two teams to look when they take the ice for that game.
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
22-Niederreiter, 9-Koivu, 64-Granlund
3-Coyle, 12-Staal, 11-Parise
16-Zucker, 19-Hanzal, 29-Pominville
7-Stewart, 56-Haula, 21-White
28-Bartley (torn triceps)