When the Toronto Maple Leafs flew cross country from Los Angeles to D.C. on March 14, they were a confident club coming off two wins in three games in California. Ten days later, that confidence must seem like a distant memory as the Leafs have followed their west coast swing with a season-high five game losing streak.
The Maple Leafs’ slide serves as a cautionary tale for the Capitals, who hope to avoid a similar letdown following an impressive California trip of their own in which they went 2-0-1 against the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks. Washington was the 16th Eastern Conference team to play three straight road games in California this season, but the first to earn as many as five points.
“It felt like a playoff game atmosphere every night,” Eric Fehr said of the three-game California trip. “We knew how desperate we had to be going up against the top three teams in the Pacific [Division], it’s not an easy task, and we took each game as a challenge to match up against some of the better teams and I thought we did pretty well.”
Washington’s successful road trip, combined with Toronto’s recent struggles, has allowed the Capitals to pull within one point of the Maple Leafs for the second wild card position in the Eastern Conference. Tack on a pair of wins from before their trip to California and the Capitals are 4-0-1 overall since March 14, while the Maple Leafs are 0-5-0 over that same stretch.
“It extended our season,” forward Troy Brouwer said after practice Monday. “If we went into California and didn’t do as well as we did, we could’ve been out [of a playoff position] by three or four points. It made it so that we’re confident going into the last ten games of the season here.”
As the Maple Leafs can attest though, that confidence can quickly erode. With No.1 goalie Jonathan Bernier sidelined with a groin injury, the Maple Leafs have lost five straight in regulation for the first time since Oct.3-24, 2009. The Leafs host the Western Conference leading St. Louis Blues on Tuesday.
“It was a great trip, but you turn the page now,” said forward Jay Beagle. “It was obviously a confidence booster, it gave us momentum, but now it’s behind us and it’s just a matter of trying to make this final push to go to the playoffs.”
That push begins Tuesday at Verizon Center against the Kings, followed by a Saturday matinee against the Eastern Conference leading Boston Bruins.
“It can be easy to come home and think that it’s going to be easy after a tough trip,” Fehr explained, “but I think that we have enough guys here that have seen it happen before where you have a letdown when you get home, so we’re going to be ready to play. Obviously we’ve seen the standings, we’re still on the outside looking in so we have to continue to play desperate hockey.”