Two weeks ago, the focus of discussion surrounding the Washington Capitals was the sheer importance of an upcoming five-game homestand. Five games spread out over 10 days, all against Eastern Conference foes, were considered vital to the Caps’ postseason aspirations.
Those five games probably did not go as well as the Caps themselves would have originally hoped, earning five points (2-2-1), but after capping off the homestand with a come-from-behind overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday, the Caps carried that momentum. With two wins in two days – Saturday on the road against the Boston Bruins and Sunday at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs – Washington is still in possession of that momentum and it could not have come at a better time as it begins another pivotal five-game stretch Tuesday, except this time, it is on the unforgiving road.
“It might be easy to look forward to that road trip as a pivotal time,” Mike Knuble said after Sunday’s 2-0 win over Toronto. “We had to take care of this weekend. It was a great weekend for us. Not only with the points, but the way we did it. We were solid on all ends of the ice. You’ve got to build some momentum and start heading in the right direction consistently. The trick is not to do it two times, three times. We need to do it on the road three, four, five, six times.”
Maintaining consistency “three, four, five, six times” like Knuble said will not be easy. The New York Islanders await first, followed by a three-games-in-four-days stretch against the Winnipeg Jets Friday (who have 21 wins at the raucous MTS Centre and only trail Washington by four points entering Monday), the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday (who have struggled recently, making them a desperate team, which are always the most dangerous) and the Detroit Red Wings next Monday (who, despite losing three of their last five at home, have only six total home losses this season, broke the NHL’s single-season record with 21 consecutive home victories and surely have not forgotten the Caps’ 7-1 drubbing October 22). The road trip ends in Philadelphia March 22 against the always-tough Flyers, who have taken two of three from the Caps this season.
Four of the five games – the last four, specifically – are against teams either inside their respective conference’s playoff picture or just outside entering Monday. Quite frankly, Washington has not defeated high-caliber opponents lately. Excluding two wins against the Bruins January 24 and Saturday, since January 24, the Caps have defeated the Islanders (who were 13th in the East when they faced the Caps February 28), Maple Leafs (who are 4-12-2 since February 1), Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens (who were the worst team in the East when they met the Caps February 4 and second-to-worst February 28).
To defeat teams like the ones they will face over the next two weeks, the Caps will have to harness the energy and hard-working attitude that has recently propelled them to three straight wins.
“We’re gonna come at you,” Karl Alzner said Sunday. “We’re not gonna stop. We’ve gotta work and work hard. That’s the reason why we’ve been winning a couple games. We just don’t stop.”
That, however, comes with a caveat. As has been harped on all season long, the Caps have been a pitiful road team (12-18-3), but a sub-.500 record away from home can be slightly disguised by a successful road trip, one – like the previous homestand – that could define their season.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Knuble said. “Tough schedule this time of year to go all the way to Winnipeg and Detroit, Chicago back-to-back games. It’s going to be a lot of work for us.”
“The excuses might be a little bit convenient,” he continued. “But we don’t intend on using them.”