(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

They know there’s plenty of room left for improvement but that they need to make those strides as quickly as possible, beginning with back-to-back games against Tampa Bay and Florida.

“It’s down to crunch time,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “You’re going down the home stretch, every point means a lot. All these games [end up] being playoff type hockey games.”

Given the tight race at the top of the Southeast, with Washington and Florida tied at 55 points and Winnipeg trailing in third place with 50, each point matters — particularly the three meetings between the Capitals and Panthers that will take place over the next three weeks.

When the teams face off Wednesday in Sunrise, Fla., though, it will be without Alex Ovechkin, who will be serving the final two games of his suspension for charging Pittsburgh’s Milan Michalek.

“It’s going to be huge game,” said Ovechkin, who will make the trip with the team. “Unfortunately I can’t help my team to play against Tampa and Florida but I’m going to be there. I’m going to watch from upstairs. I want to help my team to get these points, it’s going to be important games for us and in the end that kind of points we needed.”

Washington’s first steps toward a strong push in the final two and a half months of the season will test its ability to perform at a more consistent level on the road. The Capitals also need to start to generate more offense without losing sight of the defensive priorities Hunter wants them to have.

“I think we really need to find the balance between defense and offense,” said Laich, who was asked what types of improvements he’d like to see down the stretch. “At times we’ve been really offensive at times we’ve been really defensive and we haven’t been able to strike that perfect balance.”

He added that as players become more solidified in their roles, playing in key games as the season winds down should become easier.

“The other thing is there’s a lot of line juggling going on right now,” Laich said. “With a new coach he wants to try different players, different combinations, that sort of thing. As you get down to crunch time you want to come to the rink knowing your role every night, knowing the guys you’re going to play with and develop a chemistry level.”

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