The Washington Capitals wrapped up a rare second straight day of practice in Arlington Friday morning with a shootout challenge that disguised a little conditioning with some fun. If a player from one group scored, the other team had to do sprints between the side boards.
It made for a lighthearted conclusion of this brief respite of three days between games, with players joking and chirping at each other before embarking on another critical road trip.
Beginning Saturday in Buffalo, the Capitals will play three games in four days against teams either floating on the playoff bubble like themselves or behind them in the standings.
They’re winnable contests that would go a long way to helping Washington find a route to the postseason and an opportunity to discourage some of its opponents.
“We’ve got Buffalo and we want to put them behind us, we’ve got Philly and we want to put them behind us, and then we’ve got Carolina — we want to catch them and put them behind us,” Brooks Laich said. “You always want to keep putting teams behind you and keep an eye on the teams above you.”
Washington (15-17-1) sits four points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers and seven back, but with two games in hand, of the Southeast Division leading Winnipeg Jets.
With 31 points, the Capitals likely need to win 10 of their remaining 15 regular season games to secure a place in the playoffs.
In essence, Washington needs to win two of every three games down the stretch, beginning with this upcoming trio of contests against the Sabres (31 points), Flyers (29 points) and Hurricanes (32 points).
In addition to weighing heavily on the Capitals’ playoff hopes, the outcome of this trip may sway how General Manager George McPhee approaches the NHL trade deadline, which is 3 p.m. on Wednesday. McPhee insisted that the playoffs remain Washington’s primary objective when asked Friday if the upcoming stretch would change his outlook on the deadline.
“I think there’s still a lot of hockey to be played. We want to make the playoffs and we’re gonna continue to push for the playoffs,” said McPhee, who was expectedly cagey when asked about his designs for the trade deadline. “That’s the plan going into the trading deadline. What can we do that’s best for the organization and helps us make the playoffs?”
Still, players acknowledged an awareness that success or failure over the next three games could result in corresponding changes to their lineup.
“This [trip] is going to go a long ways toward that, if we’re going to be active in one way or another,” Troy Brouwer said. “We got ourselves in a position where we can still get into the playoffs, we’re still in the playoff race by all means and guys are excited to play this week because we know it could be our season.”
Reaching the playoffs remains a formidable challenge for the Capitals in this shortened season, but facing long odds and having several teams in their way isn’t something they’re entirely unfamiliar with.
Last season under Dale Hunter, the Capitals sat in eighth place with 15 games remaining but needed to fend off the attempts of Buffalo to try and unseat them. Washington went 9-4-2 in those remaining regular season contests and wound up advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals as a seventh seed.
More similar, still, to this year’s predicament was what the 2007-08 Capitals did under Bruce Boudreau, their first-year coach. With 15 games left to play on March 4, 2008, Washington sat in 11th place four points out of eighth — exactly the same spot it resides prior to the start of this road trip.
The Capitals went 12-3 to close out that regular season, clinching a playoff spot in the last game of the year. Simply knowing that such a late-season surge is possible is encouraging for everyone in the room, even those who didn’t make that climb.
“We know the desperation,” Karl Alzner said. “We know what desperation’s like, last year we experienced that. We know how important every single point is, every shift is. There’s no secret that sometimes you go out there, you take a shift off, you’re not all into it. But you have to be at this point. That’s the thing we need to remember.”