- The Washington Times - Monday, February 8, 2016

The cell phones started beeping and buzzing not too long after the Washington Capitals returned home from a road game against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday evening.

Players had reconvened from their four-day all-star break earlier in the week, providing some degree of normality. Two of the Capitals‘ previous games had been wiped out because of a snowstorm, leading to just one game in a span of 13 days, and although that first practice afterward was sluggish, the reunion was sweet.

That’s why, once the airplane landed at Dulles International Airport on Saturday and everyone began going their separate ways, the text messages started rolling in. Nearly every player takes part in a team-wide group chat, with topics meandering from hockey strategy to television shows to witty retorts at others’ expenses. Being home — and being apart — reminded several of them just how much they’ve enjoyed this season.

“Days off are great, but once you get into the groove, it’s kind of nice, too,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You just know what to expect. Guys are feeling good and around each other.”

That cohesion will add a dimension this week, when the Capitals embark upon a three-game road trip that will span six days and whisk them across the central United States. For some, it will be back to the site of the All-Star Game, with a meeting with the Nashville Predators looming on Tuesday. A visit to the Minnesota Wild follows on Thursday, and the main event, a game against the Dallas Stars, the second-place team in the Western Conference, is set for Saturday.

At 38-9-4, and with 80 points in the standings, the Capitals have the best record in the NHL. Entering Monday, they held a 12-point lead over the Florida Panthers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and were 17 points ahead of the New York Rangers for the Metropolitan Division lead. That gap is larger than the one between the Rangers and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are 16 points behind and in last place in the division.

The Capitals had also played the second-fewest games of any team, and the start of the road trip will thrust them into a scheduling crunch that will essentially see them playing a game every other day through the end of the regular season in mid-April.

“Everybody’s kicked their game to playoff mode — the Islanders, the Flyers,” coach Barry Trotz said on Sunday, following Washington’s 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. “Everybody’s in playoff mode. We’re going to Nashville, they’re going to be in playoff mode. Fortunately, with our record, we have some separation. We’ve got, I’ll say, some money in the bank, but at the same time, we can’t take that for granted.”

The Capitals have won three of their four games since the hiatus, dropping the opener to the Panthers on Tuesday before claiming 3-2 victories over the New York Islanders, the New Jersey Devils and the Flyers. They trailed in all four games, including conceding the opening goal in three of them.

Such close games appear much more likely over the next nine weeks as teams steady themselves for the playoff push. Alex Ovechkin, who sat out the game against Florida because he missed the All-Star Game with an injury, saved Washington by scoring the winning goal late against the vengeful Islanders on Thursday, then scored the last goal in a shootout against the punishing Devils.

“Something we talk about, we play some of these teams that are in playoff mode already because they’re in the fight to get in,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “That’s good for us. That forces us to play intense hockey, battle-ready hockey. … That’s going to be good for us to have tough tests on the road. It’s all part of an experience that we’re building here.”

By sending defenseman Connor Carrick and left wing Paul Carey back to Hershey on Monday morning, the Capitals signaled that they’re ready for defenseman Brooks Orpik and center Marcus Johansson to return from injury during the road trip.

Their returns could help, just as there are still some issues for Washington to address. One glaring problem: The Capitals‘ current 0-for-17 stretch on the power play, spanning five games, which hasn’t been surpassed since they went 0-for-19 over parts of eight games ending on Feb. 7, 2012.

In hockey, few things matter more than having a routine, and those are the types of things, Alzner said, that should correct themselves now that the team has been able to pick itself up from the layoff and can hit the road.

“It’s just the type of group that we have,” Alzner said. “We just enjoy being together, so the fact that we’re playing consistently now is good.”

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