The Washington Times - March 15, 2011, 01:13PM

The last time the Capitals embarked on a long road trip, they were struggling through a 2-3-2 stretch and on a two-game skid. Tampa Bay was in first place.

“We were looking at that if we don’t have a successful road trip, we’re fighting our lives for a playoff spot,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said.

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Now, there’s “a different mindset.” Washington is all but assured a playoff spot and is riding an eight-game winning streak into this six-game swing, which includes visits to Montreal, Detroit, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Ottawa and then Montreal again. Boudreau doesn’t want to think about getting the No. 1 seed, but the Caps could pass the Flyers for that top spot in the Eastern Conference with a win Tuesday night and a Philadelphia loss.

The Caps are hot, but the Canadiens are, too, having won seven of their past 10 games. The Red Wings are solidly in second place in the Western Conference. The Devils are trying to make an improbable run from the back of the pack. That’s just the start.

“It’s gonna be a real tough road trip in tough buildings,” Boudreau said. “We’ll see how good we are; that’s for sure.”

Those first three games (at least) will be played without Jason Arnott, the big center who has seemingly changed the culture around the Caps. Nicklas Backstrom is a game-time decision to replace him at Montreal, Boudreau told reporters Tuesday morning.

Without Arnott, the Caps have the challenge of seeing what they’re made of against some tough competition. Asked if this was a “dress rehearsal” for the playoffs, the Caps’ coach shrugged that off.

“The playoffs are a different animal. This is still the regular season,” he said. “You want to play as hard as you can, all teams are trying to position themselves, but unless you’ve been in the playoffs, once it hits there, it ramps up an awful lot more, no matter who you’re gonna play.”

But it’s certainly the stretch run now, and Brooks Laich knows the importance starts ramping up now.

“I think the last 20 games are that way. I think ever since you make the trades at the trade deadline it’s that way,” Laich said.

With team’s biggest trade deadline acquisition out, some more pressure gets placed on goalie Braden Holtby, who makes his fourth consecutive start Tuesday night at Bell Centre.