Up to this point of the season, the Washington Capitals’ schedule has worked in their favor, with plenty of home games and few truly compacted stretches. That won’t be the case the rest of the month, which features a gantlet of road trips jam-packed into the next 22 days.
It’s a critical stretch for the Capitals, who after dropping four straight games and seven of their past nine have slipped to fourth in the Metropolitan Division. With 46 points, Washington sits only seven points ahead of the eighth-place New York Islanders.
“We kind of put ourselves in this little drop that we’re in now; certainly we can change that,” said top defenseman John Carlson. “There’s no better time to get on a winning streak than when the games are rolling over as quick as they are. Play with confidence and before you know it you’re doing pretty well.”
Beginning Thursday when they visit streaking Tampa Bay, which has won six of its last nine and maintained playoff positioning despite the long-term absence of Steven Stamkos (broken leg), the Capitals will play six games in eight days.
Nine of the 13 contests that remain in January will take place away from Verizon Center, testing a squad with a 7-8-4 road record. And this three-week stretch also includes four sets of back-to-back contests — they only had seven in the first three months of the season.
That many games in such a short period of time gives the Capitals an opportunity to either get back on track or further succumb to their mistakes before the NHL takes a break of roughly two weeks for the Sochi Olympics next month.
“We have to start winning games now,” said Marcus Johansson, who will line up as third-line center against Tampa Bay after the latest round of line changes from Coach Adam Oates. “We’ve lost some in a row here and even though I think we’ve played pretty good it’s the wins that count. To get a good roll on a stretch like this is really important.”
The challenging part of this particular losing streak for Oates and the Capitals is that their overall play, especially at even strength, hasn’t been terribly suspect.
Washington won the possession battle in each of the last four games but the team’s play has come unraveled by unnecessary penalties, an underwhelming penalty kill, lapses in defensive poise and those pesky quick-response goals.
“We’re getting bad penalties at bad times and they’re costing us, we’re not getting the kills when we need them and the momentum swings are killing us,” Eric Fehr said. “We score goals, then other teams come back and score right away. We’ve just got to do a better job of keeping momentum on our side for the whole game.”
Through this rough stretch, Oates has remained focused on method more than results. He sees encouraging signs in the Capitals’ play, particularly the possession advantages, and has always believed that if the team can execute properly, wins will follow.
That’s part of the reason he plays down the challenge of this grueling portion of the schedule. Oates doesn’t want players to get too far ahead of themselves; he wants their focus on the present and steady improvement.
“You want to find ways to win, for sure. But I’ve always said and I still think that if you play well it will turn and you’ll win your share. That’s still important to me,” Oates said. “If we do good things correct, play consistent and work on mistakes it will go our way.”
But patience could be a virtue that betrays the Capitals, who need more than moral victories to keep pace in the standings, especially with only 12 overtime and regulation wins this season. At this point, they would lose the first tiebreak outright to every team in the division except the last-place Islanders.
“I think we’ve been playing pretty well but we certainly need to make some more breaks for ourselves,” Carlson said. “We want to win no matter what. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter to us if we played good or not, as long as we win we’re happy and we haven’t done that. We’ve got a good enough team in here to figure out ways to do that.”
Capitals note: Defenseman Alex Urbom, acquired in October, was claimed off of waivers by New Jersey, his former team.