ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Washington Capitals arrived here to 70-degree temperatures and sun-drenched palm trees having pinned themselves in a corner.
With 13 games left in the regular season they sit two points out of the final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, without any tiebreakers against the other handful of squads jockeying for the position. To keep pace Washington must keep winning, but this week it will face a three-game gantlet in California from which few teams have emerged successfully.
Beginning Tuesday, the Capitals will play three of the top eight teams in the NHL — the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks — in a road trip critical to their postseason aspirations. If they do well, it will boost their confidence down the stretch and keep hope of a seventh consecutive playoff berth alive. Falter, and there may not be enough time to catch up.
It’s a daunting task. Of the 15 teams this season that have played successive road games against the three California-based teams, only four came away with four or more points. The Capitals (32-27-10, 74 points) believe they need to join that group.
“We’ve got to have the mind-set that we’ve got to win every one,” Jason Chimera said. “You’ve got to play desperate hockey and give your best. If we come back from this road trip without any points or just two points we’re still looking up a ways. We’ve got to make some hay on this road trip.”
That’s the outlook preached by Coach Adam Oates as well. “Got to win them all,” he said after the Capitals defeated Toronto, 4-2, on Sunday afternoon before starting the trip. But living up to that expectation, when considering the strengths of each opponent, will require Washington’s most complete play of the season.
First up is Anaheim (45-16-7), which ranks second in the league with 97 points. The Ducks have shown they can outscore just about any opponent at even strength, ranking second in the league to Chicago with 156 goals. But if there’s one team on this trip the Capitals are familiar with it’s the Ducks, because they know Coach Bruce Boudreau’s style quite well after his three-plus seasons in Washington.
“We just have to dictate our game,” Alex Ovechkin said. “Everybody knows Bruce’s style — he’s probably going to match up the lines and try to play more aggressive but we have to do what we do. We’re going to play against one of the best teams in the league right now. It’s going to be good challenge for us. . . . We’re in position where we’re going to be underdog.”
The Kings (38-24-6, 82 points) recently found their stride, going 7-2 since the Olympic break entering Monday night’s game against Phoenix. They are widely considered the best possession team in the league, playing what amounts to an elaborate game of keep-away.
According to ExtraSkater.com, Los Angeles leads the league with a 57 percent Corsi rating, meaning their opponents attempt a shot on net just 43 percent of the time. For comparison, the Capitals own a 48.9 Corsi percentage.
While they struggle to score — averaging 2.34 goals per game, third-fewest in the league — the Kings neutralize that deficiency with their ability to control the puck and with goaltender Jonathan Quick, whose 2.05 goals against average ranks second in the NHL.
Then there are the Sharks (45-17-7, 97 points), who are 25-4-4 at home and have caused Washington problems for more than two decades. The Capitals are winless in their last 12 trips to San Jose, their last victory coming on Oct. 30, 1993, and are 2-16-2 in their last 20 meetings overall.
San Jose is also one of the better possession teams in the league, with a 54 percent Corsi, and counts on winning the game at even strength. The Sharks have scored 72 percent of their goals this season in five-on-five play and will try to keep Washington’s all-important power play quiet with the league’s sixth-best penalty kill (84.7 percent) in the league.
There’s no way to sugarcoat the challenges these three teams pose for any opponent, let alone one Washington, which has struggled to find consistency in defensive play, even-strength scoring and in protecting leads. But with the regular season rapidly coming to a close, the Capitals have no other option but to elevate their game.
“Every point counts right now. We are in a chase and we all know it here,” goaltender Jaroslav Halak said. “We know that we have to play good hockey — or not good. Good is not good enough.”
Capitals note: Brooks Laich underwent successful surgery to release a tight adductor muscle Monday in St. Louis. He is expected to miss four to six weeks, which means he will be sidelined at least the rest of the regular season. Specialist Michael Brunt performed the procedure.