It is the road trip that has loomed over the Capitals since they returned from the NHL’s Winter Olympics break last month.
A difficult schedule over the final 23 games reaches it’s toughest point with three games in California this week. Washington plays at Anaheim on Tuesday, Los Angeles on Thursday and San Jose on Saturday.
About the only benefit is there are no back-to-back contests. But with every single point critical as the Caps chase down a Stanley Cup playoff spot, it’s the biggest challenge they’ve faced yet.
“We want to be above .500 [on the trip]. Absolutely,” forward Troy Brouwer said after Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. “If we want to continue to make a push for the playoffs, we have to continue to get the majority of points in little mini series. With this road trip coming up, there’s six points at stake and we need at least four of them to be in the playoff picture.”
The problem? That’s three of the top eight teams in the NHL this season. Anaheim, under former Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, has 97 points and is tied for first place in the Pacific Division with rival San Jose, which has 97 points, too, but an extra game played. The Kings are third in that powerhouse division with 82 points, but are considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender once again. Los Angeles won the title two years ago.
The Caps last won in Anaheim on Feb. 16, 2011, a memorable 7-6 thriller. But they are 5-6-1 at Honda Center all time. They have lost three games in a row at Staples Center against the Kings and the last win in that building came on Dec. 14, 2005.
In San Jose, Washington has lost 12 games in a row dating to Oct. 30, 1993. That was just the third year of the Sharks’ existence and their first season in what is now called SAP Center. Despite those long odds, Caps coach Adam Oates went even further than Brouwer about his team’s California trip.
“You’ve got to win them all,” Oates said. “We haven’t played [the Kings] yet, but we played Anaheim [in Washington]. We could’ve won that game. San Jose, same thing. I know they’re better than us in the standings, but you’ve got to have the attitude that you’re going to beat them.”
If there’s a ray of hope for the Caps, it’s that all two of those California teams have skidded some lately. The Ducks just won the last two games of a road trip, but are 2-2-2 over their last six.
The Kings had lost two in a row, including a 2-1 game at home against Anaheim on Saturday. They played Phoenix on Monday night and will have two full days to prepare for Washington. Prior to that brief losing streak, however, Los Angeles had won eight games in a row.
San Jose is a different animal. In addition to the Caps’ absolute futility in the Shark Tank over the years, they have won six games in a row and are 11-1-2 since Feb. 1. That included a recent three-game road sweep of Columbus, the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders.
Washington will go into the trip knowing that forward Brooks Laich is likely finished for the rest of the regular season. The team announced on Mondaythat Laich had a procedure to release a tight adductor muscle. The timeline for his return is 4-to-6 weeks.
Oates had said after Sunday’s game that Laich was headed to St. Louis to see Dr. Michael Brunt, a groin specialist, and wouldn’t accompany the team to California.
That continues a difficult two seasons for the 30-year-old forward, who was originally hurt while playing in Switzerland during the NHL lockout last year. He appeared in just nine games in 2013 and had a similar procedure last spring. Washington was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, however, before Laich could return to the ice.
This year, Laich played in 51 games, but was often hampered by the adductor issue. He had eight goals and seven assists and appeared revived after the three-week layoff during the Olympic break. But Laich missed a March 6 game at Boston, a March 11 game in Pittsburgh and was clearly laboring in Friday’s win over Vancouver. He did not play against Toronto on Sunday.