Washington Capitals need to step up in March

The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, LaVar Arrington, Jason Reid and Jonathan Forsythe discuss Alex Ovechkin’s hat trick and Braden Holtby’s string of starts between the pipes for the Capitals. (Post Sports Live)

March is presenting its own kind of madness for the Washington Capitals, the kind of insanity that can be brought on by playing 15 games in 27 days. Of course, the Caps face no more of a scheduling challenge than any other team in the league, so the calendar, like injuries and the old “new coach, new system” refrain, has to be banished from the losing lexicon.

There’s nothing like winning for clearing out the old excuse cobwebs, and lately, the slow-out-of-the-gate Caps have been playing pretty good hockey. A 4-1 loss at Philadelphia last Thursday was a bump in a fairly smooth road that has taken the Caps to six wins in their last nine games, and out of the NHL cellar.

Their most recent victory — 3-0 at Winnipeg on Saturday — was crucial. It came on the road, in a tough arena, against a division opponent. Now it’s time they turn their attention to one of the league’s best teams, the Boston Bruins, who return to Verizon Center on Tuesday for the first time since last year’s playoffs.

Remember that series? All seven games were decided by a single goal. Four of the seven were decided in overtime. And the Capitals knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champions. The teams spent a lot of quality time together — on the ice, in the boards, in the box. Some lasting bonds were formed.

“You play that many games against the same team, you’re bound to not like them,” right wing Troy Brouwer said after Monday’s practice. “We’ve got some pretty good battles and some grudges against certain players. Because of the series last year, there might be some animosity here tomorrow.”

Not that that worries Brouwer.

“It makes the games a lot more exciting; it makes it more enjoyable,” he said. “You get into it a lot more, and then it’s a lot more exciting for the fans.”

Getting back in the playoff hunt also would be exciting for the fans, and for that reason, Tuesday night’s game is pivotal. It’s the first of four games over six days. That sounds brutal — and it is — but it is also an opportunity, because three of those games are at home, where the Caps are .500. After Sunday, just three home games remain the rest of the month.

So it’s time to make metaphoric hay while the sun shines. By the end of Sunday’s matinee against the Rangers, the Capitals need to have gained ground in the standings, because their road record — 3-6-1 — suggests that points are going to be harder to come by away from Verizon.

Included in this four-in-six stretch are back-to-back games, Saturday at the Islanders and Sunday at home against the Rangers. In fact, the Capitals have four more sets of back-to-back meetings in March, including a rough three-game road swing to Pittsburgh and Winnipeg, where they face the Jets on consecutive nights.

The formula for surviving these is simple, said Jason Chimera: “You win the first one, I think it helps out a lot.” Avoid having to play from behind, which expends more energy. “I know from experience coming back from games when you seem like you come back all night, then the next night you’re tired because you had to come back all night. It seems like if you get a good win and get the lead [in the second game], it makes things a little easier on yourselves.”

The Capitals have not excelled at making things easy on themselves this season, but it seems like a corner has been turned. Players seem more comfortable with their roles and therefore more relaxed. There were even a few laughs during Monday’s workout. Is everyone finally on the same page, just in time for the madness that is March?

“We’re starting to jell,” said Matt Hendricks, who started on the first line at Winnipeg and scored the Caps’ first goal. “You can see the cohesion in the group. You can see the confidence not only in the players but in the coaches with their players. The confidence is running right down the bench. We talked about it the other night in Winnipeg. When the coach stands behind you [and] you can sense he’s feeling fine putting anyone on the ice, that’s a good thing for everybody in the locker room.”

If they’re jelling, they’re jelling just in time for a difficult run of difficult games. If not? Take it from Julius Caesar: Beware the Ice of March.

For previous colums by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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