Tonight at Capital One Arena, the Caps conclude a quick two-game homestand against the Ottawa Senators, the team whose fans are likely the most bruised of any around the league in the wake of the deadline. The Sens shipped away three of their top four scorers over the weekend, sending Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to Columbus in separate swaps and moving Mark Stone to Vegas just ahead of Monday's deadline.
Ottawa occupies the bottom rung in the overall NHL standings, but it doesn't matter much to the Sens and their fans where they finish, because the team dealt away its first-round pick - a certain lottery pick in this summer's draft - to get Duchene to Ottawa where he played all of 118 games in a Sens sweater.
Tuesday's tilt with the Sens finishes off February for the Capitals, and March is going to come in like a lion for Washington, which will play seven of its first nine games on the road next month. That makes tonight's two points a critical pair for the Caps to have.
"A lot of times prior to a trade deadline, sometimes your focus can leave from within your room," cautions Caps coach Todd Reirden, "and for a number of different humanistic reasons. But I think now that everything is set and we are moving forward as this particular group, it is now about us and improving our game and getting our game where it needs to be. We have certainly improved since the break, as expected, and have turned some of our issues into not as big of factors as they have been, but we're still trying to grow as a group and now we've got two new players that we have to figure out how we can utilize and we can get more comfortable with.
Video: Todd Reirden | February 26
"For us tonight, it's about learning to play as a group and with two new additions here. Sometimes, these type of games are more difficult because maybe the team is not as systematic or as predictable as they should be because they have brand new players that are coming in and out. So you prepare for some things and we've put a lot of time and effort into preparing our players for what to expect from the opposition. Now, they don't do it, and you're [thinking], 'Why did he not go there?' So you've got to expect a little bit of a wild card in terms of some new players. On top of that, you've got guys that are really excited for an opportunity to establish themselves as NHLers - maybe it's increased minutes.
"There is a lot there, and they are players that are playing pressure-free. They're not going to make the playoffs, so they are playing loose and they are able to focus on some things that can push their product - so to speak - or their individual standing to a different level."
Swagger - Since joining the Caps late last week, Hagelin has used the word "swagger" a couple of times in describing his new team, as in "there is a good swagger" to the Caps. The Caps definitely pulled a heavy sense of swagger together late last season and into the playoffs, and now they're attempting to repeat that feat a year later.
Since the conclusion of the NHL's bye week/All-Star break, the Caps have posted an 8-4-1 record, a mark they can obviously nudge to 9-4-1 with a win over the Sens tonight. That's somewhat significant in that these Caps forged comparable 10-4-1 and 9-4-0 records in November and December, respectively, and finishing February with a flourish would help show that January's 3-6-3 slide was an aberration.
Although they've been blanked in two of their 13 games this month, the Caps have averaged 3.23 goals per game this month, within range of their 3.33 mark for the season.
The concern is at the other end of the ice, which is where the late season/playoff improvement took root so firmly and dramatically around this time last season. The Caps are 23rd in the NHL in goals against this season, worst among the 16 teams in playoff positions.
"It's definitely something that we've talked about," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson, "and it's definitely something that I think is trending upwards. It has been a little bit better as of late.
Video: Caps Locker Room | February 26
"A big part of that is odd-man rushes and chances against. We were getting away from our structure, but we've tightened that up a little, and that's something that you have to depend on come playoffs, come the crunch time, is being predictable to your teammate and playing within your structure, because if you start chasing games - which we were - then you start giving up more at the other end."
After bleeding goals against to the tune of four goals a game over a 14-game stretch leading up to the break, the Caps have trimmed it to 3.15 this month, but they know that number still needs to be hacked significantly. You're not winning in the playoffs giving up three goals a game.
"We've always had that high-powered offense," says Wilson, "but what set us apart last year was being able to shut other teams down in the [defensive] zone, and to keep them off the board."
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net for the Capitals on Tuesday against Ottawa, making his first start against the Sens this season after Pheonix Copley earned wins over the Sens on successive Saturday nights in late December.
After posting a 4.11 GAA and an .880 save pct. in eight January appearances, Holtby has rebounded with a 2.80 GAA and a .919 save pct. in nine games this month. It was in early March of last season - specifically, after being pulled early in a March 6, 2018 loss at Anaheim - that Holtby underwent his infamous "reset" while Philipp Grubauer garnered most of the starts the rest of the way, and including the first two games of the playoffs.
"You try and learn from experience," says Holtby, "and there are similarities from both seasons. I think you can look at the San Jose and Toronto games [in January] this year, that stretch [that included] Chicago. Last year, I went through a similar thing, but I really let it get to me.
"A couple of those games where you really have no control over the outcome, those just happen sometimes. And last year, I left it get to me. I tried to overcompensate and do too much, and once I did that, then I started causing more than I was solving.
"This year, I just tried to take it more in stride, tried to simplify. There are still improvements to be made, but mentally I'm in a better place this year. I think myself and our team, we need to be in a good place mentally if we are going to make a push."
Lifetime against Ottawa, Holtby is 8-3-1 with a shutout, a 2.)& GAA and a .932 save pct. in a dozen games.
For Ottawa, we are expecting to see Anders Nilsson in net. The Sens obtained the well-traveled Nilsson from Vancouver early last month, and Ottawa is the sixth NHL team for which Nilsson has toiled in as many seasons in the league.
Nilsson has played well since joining the Senators, posting a 7-7-0 mark in 15 games to go along with a 2.83 GAA and a .917 save pct. Lifetime against the Capitals, he has struggled with a 1-4-1 record, a 3.43 GAA and an .888 save pct. in seven games.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | February 26
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and the Senators to look when they meet for the third and final time this season on Tuesday night in the District:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
65-Burakovsky, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
62-Hagelin, 26-Dowd, 72-Boyd
7-Tkachuk, 36-White, 10-Duclair
38-Balcers, 71-Tierney, 89-Boedker
15-Smith, 44-Pageau, 9-Ryan
17-Gibbons, 24-Lindberg, 56-Paajarvi