It's been a week of drama for the Washington Capitals, from veteran Mike Knuble bristling at being a healthy scratch to former goaltender Olie Kolzig calling out captain Alex Ovechkin for letting his "rock star status" affect his play.
Perhaps a three-game losing streak and three days off contribute to that, but it gets cold and pretty real when discussing the Caps' current spot: Out of the playoff field and four points back of the Florida Panthers for first place in the Southeast Division.
"It's not about jokes, it's not about fun time," Ovechkin said. "It's a serious time, and everybody realizes and everybody concentrates on it."
There's still time for jokes, as Ovechkin cracked some himself about being a rock star, but there isn't a whole lot of time left for the Caps to change the course of their season. Their four-game road trip, which begins Friday night at the Panthers, screams out as a stretch that could define or potentially derail their season.
"I think everybody knows it's probably the biggest trip of the year, and we just have to not think about the standings," Ovechkin said. "We just have to play and take six points or eight points."
With games at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday and the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday, there's debate about whether the Caps should a benchmark for how many points they need to pick up to make it a successful trip. Center Brooks Laich said they need to win at least three games, if not all four.
Dale Hunter, like most coaches, prefers to focus on the now and talk about things game by game. That might be the most effective approach considering the Caps are three points out of the final playoff spot with 26 games left.
"If you start looking at how many points you need total and how many games you might have to win in a month or something like that, it can seem a little bit overwhelming," defenseman Dennis Wideman said. "For us, we've just got to pick our game up and be consistent."
It's hard to overstate the importance of Friday night's game in South Florida, as a loss would put the Caps six points back of the Panthers while a victory would put them just two behind. Florida's volatility this season makes it a moving target, but head-to-head chances don't come along often enough for the Caps.
But several players pointed out that every game is important right now, no matter the opponent.
"You're paying attention to standings all the time," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "As much as you don't want to, you have to realize where you are within everyone."
Where the Caps are is a chasing position, an unfamiliar spot for a group that has spent plenty of time in first place over the past couple seasons. And with just one home game before the trade deadline, they know figuring out a recipe for road success has gone from important to downright urgent.
"We just have to play good, solid 60 minutes," defenseman Roman Hamrlik said. "Every day it's the same thing: stay off the box, try to score the first two goals or first one goal and play with some confidence early in the game. That's the way we're going to win some hockey games on the road."
Scoring first on the road doesn't guarantee success, but not scoring first has been a tough hole for the Caps to climb out of. They're 4-5-1 away from home when they score first, and 5-10-2 when they don't.
But getting that early burst also requires some self-generated energy. Defenseman Karl Alzner acknowledged after the Caps' 4-2 loss at the Panthers on Feb. 1 that it was hard getting up for the game given the disappointing crowd and atmosphere.
That can't be a problem this time.
"You've got to take it upon yourself to get yourself up for the game," Brouwer said. "It's a place where the sun's usually shining and it's nice out and sometimes you don't necessarily want to go to the hockey rink. But it's your job. You have to find ways to prepare yourself and get yourself ready for what you need to do."
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