Three days between games this week offered the Washington Capitals plenty of time to stew over their current place in the Eastern Conference standings and understand the significance of a four-game road trip, which comes at a critical time as they fight to avoid missing the postseason for the first time in five years.
Ninth-place Washington (28-23-5, 61 points) sits three points out of a playoff spot, four behind Southeast Division leader Florida, with only 26 games left in the regular season. Players know that as they begin a six-day sojourn to face those Panthers on Friday, then visit Tampa Bay, Carolina and Ottawa, they need to start winning — now.
“If you look at our record in the last 26 games [12-10-4] and what we have to do in the next 26, it’s a big task,” forward Brooks Laich said. “The desperation has to be there every game.”
In all but one of the six seasons since the NHL lockout, it has taken at least 92 points to make the playoffs in the East. It’s considered an accurate guideline for this year as well, which will provide a challenge for the Capitals given their significant struggles on the road this season.
Fourteen of Washington’s 26 remaining games will be played away from Verizon Center. Should the Capitals continue to falter on the road the same way they have all season — their 9-15-3 record equates to a points percentage of .381 — the team would acquire only 11 points out of those 14 contests.
That would put the Capitals at 72 points. Based on the estimated 92-point threshold, they would need to go 10-2 in their remaining home games.
Those calculations for road games don’t even take into consideration that the Capitals will face teams with some of the best home records in the league: Detroit, Chicago, the New York Rangers and Boston. Only three of the teams Washington will face on the road have home winning percentages of less than .517, and none are lower than .400 (New York Islanders).
“We don’t want to have to go down to the last game and have a team lose for us to be in or some situation like that,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You look ahead, as to what could happen if you don’t win the game, and then make sure you collect.”
As the games grow more important, the Capitals are also faced with several questions approaching the NHL’s Feb. 27 trading deadline. General Manager George McPhee told reporters Thursday that he is not sure what the trade market will lead to for Washington, and that much depends on the health of top defenseman Mike Green and top center Nicklas Backstrom.
While there remains no timetable for when Backstrom, who has missed 18 games with a concussion, will begin skating again, the Capitals expect to see Green return within the next week and possibly as early as this weekend. How Green fares when he is back in a game for the first time since Jan. 7, and any progress Backstrom makes between now and the deadline, will impact McPhee’s moves.
“We’ll just see how things go,” said McPhee, who typically keeps his plans close to the vest around the deadline. “I don’t know whether we’re going to make a hockey trade, do a rental, something more permanent or do nothing. I don’t know. You have your own ideas, but they may not develop into anything.”
As McPhee weighs moves ahead of the trade deadline, the Capitals are playing significant games in February for the first time since the 2007-08 campaign. At this stage in each of the past three seasons, they have sat no lower than fifth in the conference.
Many of the players in the dressing room have experienced the past three years of gliding into the postseason, but a few of the Capitals’ new additions are accustomed to the grind of critical contests. For the time being, at least, Washington’s fate is still in its own hands.
“I think this is new territory for a lot of people in here, but for myself I think I’ve been through this three years in a row prior,” said winger Joel Ward, who spent the previous three seasons with Nashville. “If you win your games outright, you move up and you advance. That’s the bottom line. It’s all about the determination of this team to bear down and win games from here on out.”
Capitals note: Owner Ted Leonsis announced in an e-mail to season ticket holders that most prices will increase (by an average of 8 percent) next season, marking the fifth straight year that most Capitals season ticket prices will go up. Last year, prices for season tickets went up from 4 to 21 percent. Two years ago, prices went up from 5 to 20 percent.