The Caps have nearly reached the end of their daunting January schedule, a slate that has proven to be every bit as challenging as it looked when the league released the 2018-19 schedule last June. A stretch of a dozen games in 21 nights in which the Caps will take five road trips - four of them in a span of two weeks - comes to an end after Washington returns from Toronto.
Through the first 10 games of this stretch, the Caps are just 3-5-2, and they're 3-6-2 in their last 11 contests overall, a mediocre stretch that followed a prosperous 16-3-0 run from Nov. 16-Dec. 29.
Both the Caps and the Sharks are struggling as they head into Tuesday night's game. The Caps have a five-game losing streak (0-4-1) for the first time in more than four years and the Sharks have dropped three straight games in regulation for the first time this season. Tonight is San Jose's last opportunity to earn points until Feb. 2 and it's also the Sharks last chance to salvage anything from a four-game road trip.
Video: Todd Reirden | January 22
Dry Gulch - At this time last month, most of Washington's forward corps was playing well and scoring fairly regularly, giving Caps coach Todd Reirden some difficult choices to make with his nightly lineup. These days, Reirden's nightly choices are designed to try to spark some offense as his group of forwards has scored just 20 goals in the last 11 games, with only 14 of those goals coming in five-on-five play.
Against the Sharks, the Caps' first line is expected to consist of Alex Ovechkin (one goal in last five games), Nicklas Backstrom (two goals in last six, but also two goals in last 21), and T.J. Oshie (one goal in last six).
The second line is expected to be Jakub Vrana (three goals in last seven games, but none in last five), Evgeny Kuznetsov (one goal in last 22 games), and Tom Wilson (no goals in last six).
Washington's third line is Dmitrij Jaskin (one goal in 29 games), Lars Eller (one goal in last 15 games) and Brett Connolly (one goal in last 13).
Finally, the fourth line will be Chandler Stephenson (no goals in last eight games), Travis Boyd (one goal in last 13) and Andre Burakovsky (no goals in last 14). Tonight's healthy scratches are expected to be Devante Smith-Pelly (no goals in 24 games) and Nic Dowd (no goals in 16).
During the life of their current five-game slide, the Caps have been outscored 23-9, and the team's defenseman have outscored the forwards 5-4.
Video: Rinkside Update | Dmitrij Jaskin
Getting On The Same Page - When Washington went through an extended midseason lull (9-9-4 over 22-game span) early in the second half of 2017-18, a porous defense was the main issue, as the Caps yielded an average of 3.31 goals pre game during that stretch.
While a dearth of scoring (see above) is certainly part of the Caps' current extended slide, so too is the team's play in its own end. Washington has been outscored 43-27 in its last 11 games, and none of the league's 31 teams has surrendered more goals during stretch. Thirty-one of those goals against have come at five-on-five, again the most in the league during that span of just over three weeks.
Washington comes into Tuesday night's game after yielding a season high eight goals in an 8-5 loss to the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday. The Caps held a brief players only team meeting after Sunday's game, and they held a longer one with the coaches before Monday's practice.
"We're not making teams play a full 200-foot game for I'd say a majority of our games lately," said Oshie after Sunday's game. "We're not putting enough pressure on other teams' [defense], and we're not coming back hard enough as a group of forwards to put pressure on their forwards on the rushes.
"We've got something we have to clean up there. There is a little confusion and I think we got a better idea before the third period [of Sunday's game]. A lot of our offense, especially as forwards, comes from our backcheck and from our pressure and using our skating. And right now, we're kind of playing the old, 'I've got my guy' kind of thing, and saying 'If this [defenseman] doesn't beat me up ice, I'm good.' But really we've got to come back, and we've got to help our [defensemen], and we've got to apply pressure to the other teams' forwards. And really, we've got to just get back to our game."
Video: Caps 365 | January 21
It took a vaguely similar situation - a players only meeting followed by a players and staff meeting - to get the Caps on the same page late last winter, too. And once they were on the same page, they won 12 of their last 15 games of the regular season and went on to win 16 of 24 in the playoffs, and the Stanley Cup. While last season's issue doesn't exactly mirror this season's, the Caps are hopeful that the sit-down air clearing will have a similar effect as last March's meeting.
"I think it's fairly similar, and I think the direction is correct," says Oshie, "as far as information that we've gotten. At times as forwards, we get uncomfortable in certain situations and we've been making the wrong reads lately. I'm sure other teams have been doing some pre-scouting, and they've been exploiting that for us.
"That is the big part of the reason late last year that our [defensive] zone got so good and we frustrated so many teams, was how good we were with that and being on the same page after we got regrouped. We're going to need the same thing now in a couple of different areas, but especially that one."
A day after the loss in Chicago, Wilson echoed Oshie's thoughts on the matter.
"I think it was similar," says Wilson. "I don't think the issue or the confusion was necessarily the same, but just the concept of us all being on the same page and talking it out. It's a long year. Sometimes you need those meetings just to kind of get it out in the air and get guys' thoughts.
"It's not often that you have all 25 guys sitting down in a room talking about it. Groups of guys talk to each other on any given day, but in order to get everyone really on the same page, you've got to do that. And we had a couple of meetings with the group, and I think guys are feeling a little bit better about it now."
Video: Two-Man Advantage | January 22
In The Nets - Braden Holtby starts for the Caps on Tuesday against the Sharks, two days after he was pulled after yielding four goals on 11 shots in 22:30 of work in the loss to the Blackhawks. Lifetime against San Jose, Holtby is 2-4-0 with a 3.74 GAA and an .875 save pct.
We're expecting to see Aaron Dell in net for the Sharks, but it could go either way as Dell finished up for starter Martin Jones after the latter was pulled in the third period of Monday's loss to the Panthers. Dell has one win in his last four starts (1-2-1) while Jones has lost consecutive starts after reeling off eight straight wins.
Dell has never faced the Capitals while Jones owns a 4-2-0 career mark against Washington, along with a pair of shutouts, a 1.51 GAA and a .944 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Sharks to look when they meet for the first time this season on Tuesday night in the District:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov 43-Wilson
23-Jaskin, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
18-Stephenson, 72-Boyd, 65-Burakovsky
29-Djoos (lower body)
28-Meier, 39-Couture, 8-Pavelski
20-Sorensen, 19-Thornton, 68-M. Karlsson
9-Kane, 48-Hertl, 27-Donskoi
52-Radil, 23-Goodrow, 62-Labanc,
65-E. Karlsson (lower body)