For last-place Capitals, month of March is ripe with opportunity


Joel Ward muscles a shot past Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov on Wednesday. “It’s pretty cut and dry: You win and you’re in,” said Ward of the Capitals’ brutal upcoming month. (Tom Mihalek/Associated Press)
March 1, 2013

While the Washington Capitals are finally starting to put things together as they continue to adjust under first-year Coach Adam Oates, they still haven’t been able to climb out of last place in the Eastern Conference.

The Capitals are six points out of a playoff spot heading into Saturday’s game at the Winnipeg Jets, which marks the start of one of the most jam-packed portions of their season.

Over the next 30 days, Washington will play 16 games, including six against Southeast Division foes, a stretch that will be critical in determining the team’s fate this year.

“A month like this can be great, or it can be terrible. It gives you the chance to rack up a lot of points early or lose a lot of points,” Matt Hendricks said. “There’s definitely room for us to move up. There’s a lot of games against divisional opponents. We just need to come out and play our game.”

In this lockout-shortened, 48-game season,50 points appears to be the threshold to reach the postseason in the Eastern Conference. To hit that plateau, the Capitals (7-11-1) need to capture 35 points in their final 29 games.

It’s far from an unattainable task, but it will require the Capitals to deliver more relentless, aggressive performances that have been a trademark in their best outings under Oates. That means deliberate hustle to provide support in all three zones and playing as a five-man unit rather than the one-on-one efforts that plagued Washingtonin a 4-1 loss to Philadelphia on Wednesday.

Even when the details aren’t perfect, it’s important that the Capitals find ways to gain points.

“We’ve got to find ways to win,” Troy Brouwer said. “It doesn’t matter what other teams are doing. Bottom line is we’ve got to start winning hockey games and collecting points.”

As things stand now, the Capitals trail eighth-place Winnipeg and division-leading Carolina by six points. No team has jumped out in front in the Southeast, as each team continues to search for various levels of consistency. But while the division is still very much up for grabs, it figures to be a frantic race for the finish.

Winnipeg is making its case as a legitimate playoff contender, having won five of its last six, including impressive victories over the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers. The Hurricanes were greatly improved by the returns of Jeff Skinner,Tim Gleason and Jamie McBain from injury on Thursday. If Tampa Bay can get its defense and goaltending on track to support its world-class offense, it too will be in the hunt for the Southeast crown. And Florida is a wildcard after winning the division title last season.

“I think it already is at that point where teams are desperate,” Carolina captain Eric Staal said earlier this week “In a regular season, those last 30 games, you push really hard and it’s kind of already at that point — it seemed like it was right from the beginning. You need to have the ability to string a few together consistently, or you can be in trouble.”

The Capitals’ longest winning streak this season was a three-game stretch in mid-February, and they’ve only captured consecutive victories one additional time in the first 19 games.

They’ll need to find a way to do so more often moving forward if they hope to make up ground on the rest of the East. So what can help accomplish it? A greater awareness of the challenge that lies ahead, according to winger Joel Ward.

“It’s pretty cut and dry: You win and you’re in,” Ward said. “I think just playing with a little more desperation, knowing what’s at stake, is important for us. We just need to know deep down inside, getting two points every night is going to be crucial.”

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