That first trip in October did not go well at all for Washington. With Pheonix Copley in net and making his first start as a member of the Capitals and just the second of his NHL career, the rested Devils were all over the Caps, who played and defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in Washington the night before.
Copley was easily the Caps' best player that night, making a series of excellent saves to give Washington a chance to get going. The Caps never did so, and the Devils eventually reached Copley for a spate of late goals in the third in a 6-0 blitzing.
New Jersey got off to a great start to the season while Washington did not, but more than five months later the Caps own a share of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division while the Devils occupy the basement of the division and have been mathematically eliminated from any postseason possibilities.
The Devils have been decimated by injuries and they moved off several pieces ahead of the trade deadline as well. When they take to the ice tonight against the Caps, only seven of the players who donned Devils' sweaters for that Oct. 11 game figure to do so tonight.
Tuesday's tilt also starts Washington's final set of back-to-back games this season; the Caps return home to host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday. With the standings in the Metropolitan Division so tight and the number of days on the calendar dwindling, the Caps know they can't afford to get caught looking past Tuesday's game against New Jersey. Those two points are every bit as valuable as the two they'll be vying for on Wednesday against the Bolts.
"Anybody can beat anybody," says Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik. "You can see how hard they play, and you saw Ottawa give it to Toronto the other night. Sometimes those teams are the hardest teams to play against, to be honest with you. It's guys that are called up [from the minors] and this might be their only chance to make an impression.
"So they can be tough to play against. They may not have the same high end skill or finishing ability that some other high end guys have, but there are no surprises going into a game like that, especially against a team coached by [John Hynes]."
Video: Rinkside Update | Brett Connolly
Blueline Stalwart - Caps defenseman John Carlson carries a six-game scoring streak (two goals, five assists) into tonight's game with the Devils. The streak is one game shy of his career best of seven (two goals, six assists from Dec. 10-21, 2015).
Carlson is third in the NHL in assists (52) among defensemen and fourth in scoring (64 points) among blueliners. With 10 games remaining, Carlson is four points shy of matching his single-season career best of 68 points, achieved last season. Only Florida's Keith Yandle (36) has power-play points than Carlson (30) among the league's defensemen.
With 52 assists on the season, Carlson has a chance to become just the fourth NHL defenseman since 1995-96 to reach 60 helpers in a season. He also has a chance to join Larry Murphy, Scott Stevens, Kevin Hatcher and Mike Green as just the fifth Caps defenseman to attain the 70-point plateau.
For the second straight season, Carlson is poised to be the only NHL defensemen to accrue 300 or more minutes on the power play and 200 or more minutes while his team is shorthanded. Carlson leads NHL defensemen with 287:57 in power play time and he ranks 21st in the league with 191:29 in shorthanded ice time.
"Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to do everything," says Carlson. "I never wanted to be an offensive guy or defensive guy or whatever kind of style people categorize these guys in. I think I can contribute at every facet of the game, and the more I can do for the team, that's what I try to do. I think it's pretty cool that I'm in the position to have to coach's trust to do that."
Averaging over 25 minutes per night for the first time in his NHL career, Carlson has reached the double-digit goal level for the fourth time in the last six seasons. He likely would have done so in the other two seasons as well, if not for a couple of injuries. Carlson ranks sixth in the league with an average of 25:11 of ice time per night, which is less than half a minute more than he averaged (24:47) last season.
The recent addition of Nick Jensen in a trade with Detroit gives the Caps another right-handed penalty killer, which could ease Carlson's shorthanded workload some. The other players who have seen duty in that right side, third pairing slot generally weren't used on the kill.
"I think if it's close, you probably can't really feel it," says Carlson. "But if we were playing four, five or six minutes more than last season, that's probably a lot bigger load. I think Nick [Jensen]is just getting acclimated, and he has already been a key contributor on the penalty kill, so his minutes are going to be higher than those other guys, who were never really on the penalty kill.
"I think that's one of the reasons why they did it, and it makes us better for that. He is still getting comfortable and getting used to what he needs to do to pick up more of our tendencies and systems and all of that."
The addition of Jensen gives the Caps a trio of right-handed defensemen who work on the penalty killing unit, and occasionally two righties will be on together. That doesn't happen much, and it's something the blueliners need to be cognizant of when it is happening.
"I think we always know," says Carlson. "It's never a surprise, I should say, when that is the case. Certain plays and certain face-offs, we know how to ad-lib at react to those. But it's something that you've got to be conscious of."
Video: Todd Reirden Pregame | March 19
Back On Blueline - Aside from the change in goal, the Caps are making a couple of changes to their lineup for Tuesday's game against the Devils. Defenseman Christian Djoos will be in the lineup for the first time since Feb. 23, and Nic Dowd will draw back in after sitting out the last two games.
Djoos will replace Orpik and Dowd will replace Travis Boyd, who played in each of the last 10 games, his longest string of games with a sweater in 2018-19.
Djoos will skate in his 100th NHL game tonight, and will play the left side of the team's third pairing with Jensen on his right. Typically, Djoos has played on the right side - his off-side - with Orpik or another defenseman on his left.
"To see him on the left side, it doesn't happen to start the game a lot," says Caps coach Todd Reirden of Djoos. "But given our system and how we play and break pucks out and do different things - play rushes. As we've talked about for the last five years, our defense a lot of times end up on their off-sides because of our system. And that's something that is not out of the norm; our players have the ability to be able to execute plays from either side of the ice.
"It does give a little bit of a different look for him up top at the offensive blueline, which is where he can really attack that forward. We've seen his ability to break down players in offensive zone play, and I think we can add a little bit of that element to our team tonight."
Video: Two-Man Advantage | March 19
In The Nets - Copley will get the net again in New Jersey tonight, facing the Devils on the road for the second time this season, hopefully with much better results. After his inauspicious debut with Washington here in October, Copley settled in and has had an excellent season, winning 15 games and signing a three-year contract extension.
Copley carries a five-game winning streak into tonight's game against New Jersey, and he made at least 31 saves in four of those five victories. Copley has not tasted defeat in nearly two months, since he was tagged with a loss on Jan. 20 in Chicago in relief of Braden Holtby.
For the Devils, we are expecting to see MacKenzie Blackwood in goal once again. The 22-year-old Blackwood is in his rookie NHL season, and he has played quite well since being recalled for the first time in mid-December. He is 7-8-0 with a couple of shutouts, a 2.63 GAA and a .919 save pct. in 18 appearances (16 starts) in the NHL this season.
In eight appearances (six starts) on home ice, Blackwood is 4-2-0 with two shutouts, a 2.09 GAA and a .929 save pct. He stopped 33 of 35 shots in a 3-0 loss to the Caps in Washington on March 8.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and the Devils to look when they meet on Tuesday night in Newark:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
65-Burakovsky, 26-Dowd, 18-Stephenson
20-Coleman, 19-Zajac, 23-Noesen
17-Agostino, 58-Rooney, 21-Palmieri
18-Stafford, 56-Pietila, 49-Anderson
34-Tangradi, 41-McLeod, 39-Gabriel
13-Hischier (upper body)
37-Zacha (upper body)
42-Bastian (upper body)
63-Bratt (lower body)