The Capitals have had their time off. Now the stretch run is here with 23 games to prove that they belong in the Stanley Cup playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
It feels like a turning point for this franchise. Missing out would be difficult to rationalize. The Eastern Conference is filled with mediocre teams. It would represent another missed opportunity with this core group of players and a waste of what could be a 50-goal season from Alex Ovechkin. Doesn't help that the schedule is daunting with a California trip to Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose that would make any team blanche.
Washington begins on Thursday night in Florida, a winnable game against a team that won't make the playoffs. But, as coach Adam Oates noted, the schedule will come fast and furious here. There are eight games in 13 days with two in Boston, one in Philadelphia and a home-and-home with Pittsburgh.
Oates was happy enough with the pace of his team's final practice on Wednesday that he cut it short by a drill. He had his team watch some video from the New Jersey game on Feb. 8 – the last before a three-week break for the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Washington won three of its last four games before the break to pull out of a 2-6-3 skid.
Marcus Johansson should arrive in Sunrise, Fla. tonight after an arduous journey back from Sochi. Visa problems required that he return to Sweden after Sunday's gold-medal loss to Canada. His equipment wasn't with him so he couldn't even skate. The Caps recalled left wing Nicolas Deschamps from Hershey just in case Johansson isn't ready to play.
"Because he's traveling so far, just in case jet lag kills him and he's blah," Oates said of the need for a recall. "It's an important game and we need guys that can play so if he's not able to go then I wouldn't hesitate putting the other guy in."
Washington gets a boost with the return of defenseman Mike Green (concussion), who missed the last six games before the break, and center Mikhail Grabovski (left ankle), who missed the last eight games. That's two players who see lots of ice time and play a variety of roles.
"The hardest part during the season is staying healthy," Green said. "It's good timing for us now that everybody's healthy and we can make this last push for playoffs."
Oates would not say who would start in goal between Braden Holtby or Michal Neuvirth. The possible return of defenseman Jack Hillen from a broken leg complicates the blueline picture. Dmitry Orlov and veteran John Erskine are the other options on the left side.
The Caps are also acutely aware of their difficult schedule down the stretch. Sixteen of those final 23 games are against teams in a current playoff spot. After these eight games in 13 days, they also have that three-game road trip to Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose later in March. That's two of the top five teams in hockey and a Kings team that ranks 12th and won the Stanley Cup two years ago.
"That [schedule is] something you are aware of, absolutely," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "The only thing we can is take care of our game and make sure we win those and then we'll see what the other teams do. We can't control that."
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