There was no morning skate for the Capitals or the Maple Leafs on Saturday, but both clubs convened at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium here in Annapolis for team meetings and media availability ahead of tonight's 8 p.m. puck drop for the 2018 Stadium Series tilt between Washington and Toronto.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | March 3
Players and coaches had a chance to walk around a get a feel for the lay of the land, or the lay of the ice, as it were. The setting is gorgeous, but the wind is still making its presence felt to the point where the glass has not yet been replaced, and beams are holding a tarp in place over the ice surface. The game is expected to start on time at 8 p.m. without a hitch.
"You're used to outdoor games at New Years so it's different," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, of playing outdoors in March vs. January. "I just hope the weather is good so the ice will be in good condition, but I'm sure they're working hard on that."
Both the Capitals and the Maple Leafs are undefeated (2-0-0) in two previous outdoor games.
"There is going to be a lot of build-up to it here," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. "They turn it into a big event, which they should. They do a pretty good job with these things. But once we get out there, we're just going to be excited to play. A new surrounding is always refreshing I think for guys; it's something different. So we will hope for good weather, hopefully we will bring a real good effort and get a win, and it will be a great day."
Video: Alex Ovechkin Pregame | March 3
Coming In Like A Lion - As the Caps emerge from a very ordinary month of February in which they posted a 6-6-2 record, they will face a daunting stretch of scheduling at the outset of March.
The Caps start the March portion of their schedule tonight against the Leafs, and they leave on Monday for their annual California trip where they will face Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose, respectively. A day after returning home from that journey, the Caps will host Winnipeg at Capital One Arena.
Embroiled in an extremely tight battle for positioning in the Metropolitan Division with just 18 games remaining on their schedule, every game matters so much for Washington from here on out.
Video: Nicklas Backstrom Pregame | March 3
"It's going to be really tough," says Backstrom. "I feel like between now and at the end of the season, every point matters and it's going to be a battle until the end. We have been playing all right, but we still have an extra gear. We can get every individual role better, myself included. I can play better, and hopefully we can get to another level these last 17 or 18 games here and really play better and work on our game. It's going to be different in the playoffs; we all know that. It's going to be played at a faster pace and we all have to be ready for that."
For the most part, the Caps have played a better overall brand of hockey since an ugly 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks in Chicago two weeks ago. They've won three of six games since then, but two of the wins came against Buffalo and the other against Ottawa, currently the two teams in the Eastern Conference with the poorest records. The next two weeks will offer a much stiffer test, starting tonight against Toronto.
Making matters more difficult is the schedule. The Caps are currently in the midst of an extremely prolonged stretch between homestands, meaning that travel is necessary for every game. From Feb. 11 until March 28, the Caps will not play consecutive games at Capital One Arena, meaning that travel will be necessary for 22 straight games over a span of 45 games. A similar - but shorter - stretch at the start of the season led to a less-than-stellar 5-6-1 start for the Caps this season, and they know they'll need to find a way to play better than what passes for .500 hockey in the NHL in order to get to where they want to be by season's end, standings-wise.
Video: Matt Niskanen Pregame | March 3
"It's a tough part of the schedule," says Niskanen. "Just with the teams we're playing and the travel, we are going to get tested. I think we've made some improvements the last little while in a couple of areas that we want to build on and to continue to work on.
"When you play good teams at this time of year - especially when they're hot and they're dialed in - you find out pretty quick if you're lacking in a certain area of the game. So we'll see where we're at, try to be real competitive and come out with some wins."
Video: Barry Trotz Pregame | March 3
Coming In Hot - The Maple Leafs are one of the league's hottest teams right now, with a 14-3-2 record in their last 19 games. Toronto has played six straight one-goal games, going 4-0-2 in that stretch. The Leafs own the league's best record in one-goal games this season, at 21-3-7.
Toronto has been a strong first-period team this season, owning a 72-54 goal differential in the first frame of its games in 2017-18. Only the Winnipeg Jets have scored more first-period goals (73). Washington has surrendered 57 goals in the first period this season, tied for eighth most in the NHL.
Video: Evgeny Kuznetsov Pregame | March 3
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the starting assignment for the Capitals tonight against Toronto. Holtby will be seeking his elusive 29th win of the season, and hoping that the seventh time will be the charm. His current 0-4-2 slide - with a 5.20 GAA and an .851 save pct. - is the longest winless streak of his NHL career, and slumps of any length have been rare during the veteran netminder's NHL career.
Does the rarity of such slumps make it more difficult to get out of them when they do occur?
"This one seems to be just dragging on a little bit longer than we'd like," says Holtby. "It's strange. There are a lot of different things that go into it. Some areas obviously, I'd like to be a little better in, and some things you just can't control. Sometimes it just doesn't go your way.
"That's the hardest part right now is trying not to get too frustrated and be more realistic, because the way this stretch has been going, most games there are three goals or so - two or three, at least - that are going to go in on me at any time of the year. And it's that one or maybe two that are stoppable that I want to focus on more, not the fact that there are four or five goals going in. And it's harder because most slumps, it's three or four goals a night and not four or five, and that's just the way the league is turning a bit.
"So that's been a tough thing to keep in perspective and make sure I am controlling the controllables and don't get too overwhelmed by the results and more focused on the process."
Video: Braden Holtby Pregame | March 3
Holtby has permitted at least one goal in the first period of each of his last 11 starts, and opponents have hung a crooked number on him in the first frame of three of his last four starts. Getting through the first 20 minutes unscathed might be just the boost he needs to shake the slump, especially against a Leafs team that scores frequently in the first frame.
"That's where the mental toughness has to come in," says Holtby. "In a couple of games I haven't been very happy with myself with how I've responded to a quick couple of goals - or a quick goal, or whatever - and sometimes it's a goal that you can't do anything on. But when they happen over and over again, it wears on your mentally and it's one of those things where it is tough when you're going through it, but if you can find a way to fight through it and make sure it doesn't affect the rest of your game, it's going to make you a lot better in the end."
Although his qualitative numbers weren't as good as in previous seasons, Holtby played quite well during the first half of the season and was directly responsible for several standings points for his team. Scoring is up around the league, and the defense in front of him isn't as air tight as it was the last two or three seasons, either.
"I felt really confident," says Holtby of the early portion of the '17-18 season. "I thought we made some good adjustments and that's one of the things - I felt I was playing the same as before, or making improvements from the past, and there was still half a goal more a game or so from the past season. That's one of the fun things about this job. It always keeps surprising you with new challenges. And given the time of the year, it's an exciting challenge because if we can fight our way through it and come out better, it's going to be good timing going into the stuff that matters."
Lifetime against the Leafs in the regular season, Holtby is 7-3-1 with a shutout, a 2.05 GAA and a .934 save pct. in a dozen appearances.
For the Leafs, Frederik Andersen gets the net on Saturday. Andersen ranks fourth in the league with 32 victories and ninth with a .922 save pct. on the season. Since the All-Star break, Andersen is 8-2-1 with two of his five shutouts, a 2.64 GAA and a .927 save pct. in a dozen games.
Lifetime against the Capitals in the regular season, Andersen is 3-0-1 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.00 GAA and a .932 save pct. in four games.
Video: John Carlson Pregame | March 3
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Maple Leafs to look when they take the ice on Saturday night at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 65-Burakovsky
18-Stephenson, 83-Beagle, 25-Smith-Pelly
12-Marleau, 43-Kadri, 16-Marner
25-van Riemsdyk, 42-Bozak, 28-Brown
11-Hyman, 19-Plekanec, 29-Nylander
47-Komarov, 20-Moore, 24-Kapanen