It seems like there isn’t much time for anyone to catch their breath in this frantic 2013 NHL season, but for the Washington Capitals, this is as close as they’ll get. The Caps had two days off prior to their 3-0 shutout of the Winnipeg Jets and now have another two-day break before hosting the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center.
That might be for the best, because the upcoming stretch of five games looks like it may determine whether Washington is going to contend for a playoff spot–and in the worst division in hockey, that’s simply code for winning the Southeast. After the Bruins, the Capitals have a divisional battle against the Florida Panthers, a road trip to take on the New York Islanders, and a pair of home games against the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes.
The Bruins will be a stern test, obviously, and the one game of the five where just earning a point would be nice. Boston leads the conference in points and goal differential, has won eight of its last ten games and sports a sparkling 8-1-1 road record. Tukka Rask has filled the skates of Tim Thomas with little trouble, as the B’s have given up an incredibly stingy 38 goals in 18 games.
After that, the Caps need to make some hay. The Panthers are statistically the worst team in the East and have lost both of their previous meetings with the Capitals. John Tavares and Matt Moulson lead a dangerous attack for the Islanders, but the club is having its usual problems fixing a leaky defense. The Washington power play, especially, should feast on both teams.
The Rangers have the fewest road wins in the East, and while no match-up against Henrik Lundqvist, Marion Gaborik and Rick Nash is going to be easy, it’s the kind of game that the Caps need to win to be taken seriously. And the importance of beating Carolina, the team Washington is currently chasing, needs no explanation.
Adding to the do-or-die feel of these five games is what waits on the other side. From March 14 through April 2, the Capitals play nine out of 11 games away from Verizon Center. That part of the schedule is bookended by visits to Carolina and also features trips to Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Conveniently, the day after this daunting part of the schedule is the trade deadline. George McPhee should have a pretty clear idea of whether he’s buying or selling. The payoff is that if it’s the former, Washington ends the regular season with six of eight at home, including three games in the division.
It may not matter if the Caps can’t get seven-plus points out of the next five games. If they want to seriously be thinking playoffs (cue the famous Jim Mora clip here), they need to take care of business over the next week and a half. Good teams beat teams with less talent and defend their home ice, two things that have been far from assured in this maddeningly inconsistent season.
Are the Capitals as currently composed truly a good team or not? Chances are we’re about to find out.