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Preview: Washington Capitals Visit Minnesota Wild

2014 hasn’t begun as smoothly as the Washington Capitals would like, but they’re looking for improvements–beginning tonight with a win against the Minnesota Wild.

The last time the two teams met, the Capitals beat the Wild 3-2 in a shootout at the Verizon Center. This time, they’ll travel to Xcel Energy Center in the hopes of breaking a three-game losing streak. With only two points in their last three games, it’s crucial the Caps return home with a win–especially since the season is halfway complete, and their number-two spot in the Metropolitan Division is far from secure.

While Washington itself may not have racked up many points lately, its players have been working to produce offense. The team’s last two games of 2013 took place against the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators, and Washington scored a single goal in each contest.

Those numbers aren’t comforting, especially given the team’s offensive talent and poor defense. If the Caps can’t score, their defense isn’t going to bail them out. Goalie Philipp Grubauer, on the other hand, has done just that.

With a 5-2-3 record, Grubauer is a rising star and has helped alleviate woes regarding the goaltending situation in Washington. However, Coach Adam Oates has chosen to give Braden Holtby the start tonight, leaving Grubauer as the backup.

His decision involves making Michal Neuvirth–arguably the most qualified goalie of the bunch–a healthy scratch. Tonight is Neuvirth’s tenth time being scratched in as many games, and given his history of strong, consistent play, it’s no wonder he’s requested a trade.

That isn’t the only baffling decision Coach Oates has made as of late. Tonight, he plans to again split up Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom by putting Ovechkin on the second line with Eric Fehr and Mikhail Grabovski.

There’s no denying the chemistry between Fehr and Grabovski, but dividing Ovechkin and Backstrom is almost unthinkable, given the offensive output they’ve provided as linemates. Marcus Johansson will remain on the top line with Backstrom, although Troy Brouwer–who’s scored two goals in his past three games–will be the line’s right wing.

It’s certainly possible that altering the lines helped the Caps generate more offense against the Carolina Hurricanes, seeing as the final score was 4-3 in the Canes’ favor. However, opportunity cost might be at play here–even if the Caps are capable of scoring more goals, does it outweigh the possibility of weakening the defense even further?

The Wild don’t have a scoring talent of Ovechkin’s caliber, but they do have a handful of players who can contribute offensively. While they’ll focus on shutting Ovechkin down, particularly on the power play, the Capitals don’t have the luxury of a similar option. After all, the Wild don’t have a single offensive threat; they have several, such as the likes of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Jason Pominville.

Defenseman Ryan Suter has also been quite the playmaker, boasting 24 assists in 43 games. The opposition’s slew of offensive talent will keep the Caps busy, as they can’t afford to focus on shutting down one player but not another. While the blueliners will have their hands full, it’s more important than ever for the forwards to avoid shirking their own defensive responsibilities.

Tonight’s matchup won’t be easy for either team, but the Capitals must tighten up in their own zone and score goals–without allowing the Wild to respond. If they can strip their game down and keep things simple, they have a good shot at adding two points to the standings.

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