The Capitals boarded a plane Monday for the start of a four-game road trip that, essentially, will tell them if they are playoff contenders or pretenders.
The results of these next four games – at Pittsburgh on Tuesday, at Winnipeg on Thursday and Friday, at New York Rangers on Sunday -- might also provide a blueprint for general manager George McPhee as he ponders his moves leading up to the April 3 NHL trade deadline.
“It’s the biggest week for us, how we gonna play this week,” Caps captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We can end the season this week [or] we can continue to fight for the playoffs. It’s going to be fun games against Pittsburgh and Winnipeg.”
Fun, yes. Easy, no.
The Penguins are the NHL’s hottest team, riding a nine-game win streak without the help of star center Evgeni Malkin, who has been sidelined the past six games with an upper body injury. Malkin is being listed as day-to-day, as is defenseman Kris Letang who left Sunday’s 2-1 win over Boston with a leg injury.
The Caps are 0-2 against the Pens this season and have been outscored 11-5 in the three-goal losses. Chris Kunitz has four goals and two assists in his two games against the Caps, while Sidney Crosby has one goal and five assists.
Following Tuesday’s visit to ConsolEnergyCenter the Caps will head to Winnipeg for a pair of games against the Jets, who are 6-3-1 in their last 10 and have taken over the Southeast Division lead with a 15-12-2 record and 32 points, seven more than the Caps.
The Jets open a four-game homestand Tuesday night against the Bruins.
“Look at the standings right now,” said Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. “It’s close from top to bottom. Buffalo was in the same position we were and to get those points [on Sunday] was huge.
“Right now we have to treat every game like a playoff game. We have to win every one or else we’re done. That’s what we’re treating it like.”
In theory, the Caps could climb within one point of the Jets if they beat the Penguins and sweep the Jets, and Winnipeg loses to Boston Tuesday night.
Considering how things have gone for the Caps this season, such lofty accomplishments might be a stretch.
Against the eight teams currently in playoff position, the Caps have gone 5-10-1. Against the seven teams currently out of the playoffs they are 7-5-0.
The Caps have also had trouble winning games on the road, where they are 4-8-1 this season, third worst in the East.
Following their four-game road trip the Caps will return home to face the New York Islanders on March 26 before hitting the road for three more games that takes them right up to the NHL trade deadline..
“You know what? It’s our season right now,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “We’ve got to win games. We talked collectively as a group that we’ve got to show up for work every night. They’re tough games and we need them.”