After a rare three-day break in the shortened 2012-13 NHL schedule, the Caps are back in action tonight against the Sabres in Buffalo. The game starts a three-game trip, the last journey of more than two games for Washington this season. The Caps go right from that three-day respite to playing games on back-to-back nights; they’ll visit the Flyers in Philly on Sunday.
“It was great to get some practice time,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “It was so hard; we hadn’t had any [practice] for a few weeks. Now we’ve got three [games] in four [nights], the schedule ramps right back up.”
And with the schedule ramping back up and with 15 games remaining in less than a month’s time, conditioning will be important. With that in mind, conditioning is what Oates stressed in the team’s Thursday and Friday practices leading into this road trip.
“Quite honestly, a little bit of conditioning. You get two practices in a row and get the guys to get some pace and move their legs for a good hour out there. Because when you play a game, some guys play 15 minutes. It’s hard to maintain your conditioning no matter how much you do extra off the ice without skating, and that’s why you need practices.”
Each of the Capitals’ next six games are against teams where they are, outside of the playoff chase and looking in. Piling up as many points as possible regardless of where the games are played is crucial.
“It’s kind of like a long extended playoff series from here,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “Every game that we play from now until six or seven games from now are all against teams that we’re fighting to try to get into the playoffs with. It’s not even teams we’re trying to catch; we’re all battling amongst each other. It makes it tough because teams are getting points every night that we’re trying to jockey with for position in the standings. It really falls on us to make sure that we do what we can and get as many points as we can.”
It has been more difficult than usual for trailing teams to chase down teams ahead of them in the standings this season because all of the games are played within the conference. On Tuesday night at Verizon Center, the Caps missed a chance to put the Islanders behind them in the standings.
“Anytime you can make up a little ground or put some separation between you and another team, it’s really beneficial to the cause,” says Brouwer. “You do two things; you’re able to create some separation plus also try and catch some other teams.
“We felt we played a good game against the Islanders the other night, but we made a couple of mistakes that led to goals and ultimately lost as a result. [Losses] are going to happen, we know that. But we can’t let it happen very often if we want to try and get into the playoffs.
Heading into tonight’s game, both the Capitals and Sabres are tied with Tampa Bay for 11th in the Eastern Conference standings. Whichever team wins tonight puts the other one behind it.
“We need to win the majority of our games,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against. We can’t count on other teams to lose, Yeah, we’re tied with these guys in the standings, but for me I look at it as a must-win if they were the last place team or the first place team. It’s a huge game for us.”
Before the Caps and Sabres drop the puck to start tonight’s huge game, there are a few other important contests around the league this afternoon, games that Washington will be keeping a close eye on because of their bearing on the standings.
Pittsburgh hosts the Islanders, who are now four points ahead of the Capitals. Boston visits Philadelphia ahead of the Caps’ visit to the City of Brotherly Love tomorrow. With a win over the Bruins today, Philly would move into a four-team logjam at 31 points with Washington, Tampa Bay and Buffalo.
Out west, Winnipeg hosts Carolina. The Caps trail the Jets by seven points for the Southeast Division lead, and Washington is also a single point behind Carolina.
“After your afternoon nap you kind of have a look to see how things are going,” says Brouwer. “And even towards the beginning of the game, they usually post the scores somewhere in the building. So you have an idea of what transpired during the course of the day. Maybe that even gives you a little bit of extra motivation seeing who’s been winning and who hasn’t been, knowing that you’re going to have to catch some of the teams.”
Braden Holtby starts in goal for Washington tonight; he’ll face Jhonas Enroth for the Sabres. One lineup note for the Capitals; defenseman Jeff Schultz is back into action tonight after sitting out four straight games. Schultz will replace Dmitry Orlov, who will sit this one out as a healthy scratch.