The Caps came home smarting from a fruitless three-game trip to California on Monday, and a day later, they're set to return to action at home against the top team in the Western Conference, the Minnesota Wild.
For the first time in more than two years, the Caps head into a game lugging a four-game losing streak. They've surrendered four or more goals in four straight games for the first time in more than two years, and they've scored two or fewer in six straight for the first time in more than a decade.
Home cooking has been good to the Capitals this season; Washington is 27-6-1 on Verizon Center ice in 2016-17, and it has earned at least a point in 20 of its last 22 games here (19-2-1). With yet another formidable foe on the schedule tonight, the Caps have to hope that the home cooking can do them some good.
Video: Ovechkin and Wilson talk about Tuesday's matchup
"We just haven't adjusted to everyone else playing playoff hockey quite yet," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "That's something we know and we realize in our room that we're going to have to adjust and step our game up. We're just a little bit behind as a group and that's something we know we're capable of fixing in here, stepping it up and ramping it up, and I think that's a good eye-opener and a good wake-up call that this is a playoff run now."
Just over a week ago, the Caps owned a comfortable seven-point lead over the second-place team in the Metropolitan Division, which was the Columbus Blue Jackets at the time. Washington heads into tonight's game in a dead heat with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the Metro. The Pens pulled into a tie by virtue of gaining a point in an overtime loss to the Flames in Calgary on Monday night.
"Last year, we never were uncomfortable, because we had built such a lead," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "I was uncomfortable with our game because I didn't think we were playing that well, and then we would kick it up, find a way, win a game, or Braden would stand on his head for a game.
Video: Barry Trotz talks to the media before #CapsWild
"That part is probably a little bit different. I think on this trip, there were times when we played pretty well. You look at that L.A. game, I thought we were the better team, but we didn't get the result we wanted. Even in the San Jose game, they didn't have very many five-on-five chances at all. I thought it was a pretty well played game at five-on-five on both sides; they didn't give us much and we didn't give them much. They won on special teams.
"We've got to find a way to get to the next level in our game and back to winning. It is a little more uncomfortable feeling when you look around [at the standings]. As I said to the guys, 'Hey, when this all plays out, we could be in first, second, third or fourth [place].' That's how good the Metro is."
Too Much Time In The Box - For the first time in more than a year, the Caps have faced five or more shorthanded situations in three straight games. On the season, the Caps have a minus-30 differential between power play chances and times shorthanded. Only one team in the league - the Colorado Avalanche - has a worse special teams differential. The Avs are at minus-36, and they also own the league's worst record.
Video: Rinkside Update: Lars Eller 3/14/17
"I think we're all guilty," said Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik on Sunday night, speaking of the team's ongoing penalty issues. "We're spending too much time in the box. You give teams power play opportunities and they're going to make you pay, especially at this time of year. It's kind of the same old story."
Washington was dented for five power-lay goals against in its three-game trip to California, and part of the problem was that key Caps penalty killers kept getting whistled for minors themselves, leaving Washington's shorthanded outfit understaffed virtually every time the Caps went down a man.
"All the guys who took the penalties are the guys who kill penalties," observed Trotz at trip's end. "That's not good. You keep your skill guys off [the ice] a little bit. We've gotten lots of reps on the penalty kill the last two games here, but that's not us. We should be the ones drawing the penalties."
The Caps may have a tough time doing that tonight; the Wild is the league's second most disciplined team. Minnesota has been shorthanded just 175 times this season, or 62 times fewer than Washington's total of 237. Winnipeg leads the league at 242.
The Gift Of Gabby - Ex-Caps bench boss Bruce Boudreau comes back to D.C. for the first time since taking the reins behind the Minnesota bench at the start of this season.
With his team's most recent win, Boudreau climbed past Brian Sutter (451) with 452 career wins, cracking the league's all-time top 30 in coaching victories. Boudreau has a decent chance of catching 29th place Roger Neilson (460) this season, too. The league's all-time leader in points percentage (500 or more games) among coaches at .662, Boudreau will mark the 10th anniversary of his debut as an NHL bench boss on Nov. 22.
With the 40th anniversary of the film "Slapshot" being this year, Boudreau has had some added notoriety of late. His apartment was used in the filming of the movie, and he had a brief role in it as well.
In another bit of career nostalgia, Boudreau's hiring in Minnesota brings him back to St. Paul, where he spent half of his first pro season of 1975-76 skating for the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the late, sometimes great World Hockey Association.
"My time with the Fighting Saints was brief and blurred," says Boudreau. "We did a lot more than just playing hockey. We partied an awful lot, so when I say 'blurred,' I was young and stupid back then. And I wish I could undo a lot of the things [I did then] and just have the dedication to the game that I have now.
"I saw Dave Keon [recently], and he was playing on that team. It's funny, because I went up to him and I said, 'Dave, you said something to me that first year - and it didn't resonate until about six years later - about how hard you had to work and how much you had to put into it to be a good player.' And by that time I was in the minors for so long, I wasn't considered a prospect. But I wish I had taken notice of that at 21 and used it, because I think I could have played a lot longer."
In The Nets - Holtby gets the net for Washington tonight as he takes his fourth crack at picking up his 35th win of the season. This is Holtby's sixth season in the NHL and he has never dropped four consecutive regulation decisions. He will be seeking to avoid that fate tonight against the Wild.
Lifetime against Minnesota, Holtby is 5-2-0 with a shutout, a 2.28 GAA and a .921 save pct.
Devan Dubnyk gets the start for the Wild. He is tied for the league lead with 36 wins and is just one victory shy of matching Minnesota's single-season franchise record of 37, established by Niklas Backstrom in 2008-09. Dubnyk has posted a 29-8-2 mark over his last 40 games, dating back to Nov. 23, with a shutout, a 2.24 GAA and a .924 save pct. over that stretch.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Dubnyk is 2-3-0 in five appearances with a 3.24 GAA and an .891 save pct.
All Lined Up - The Capitals are back in the District to start a two-game homestand, starting on Tuesday night against the best of the West, the Minnesota Wild. Here's how we believe the two teams will look at game's outset:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 13-Vrana
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
16-Zucker, 9-Koivu, 64-Granlund
22-Niederreiter, 12-Staal, 3-Coyle
11-Parise, 56-Haula, 29-Pominville
21-White, 44-Graovac, 7-Stewart
5-Folin (upper body)
23-Olofsson (upper body)
28-Bartley (torn triceps)