Road Warriors?

What does it mean?

This time last week, the Washington Capitals were, as they have been for almost the entire season, in disarray.  They had just dropped another disheartening game where they had been shut out, and had only managed to pick up one win during their season-long five game homestand.

Since that game, the Capitals have picked up seven of a possible eight points against Carolina, Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto.  They seem to have energy again, riding the wave from a thrilling 3-2 comeback win against the Bolts, and they were on the gas pedal from start to finish against a Maple Leafs team playing their second game in less than 24 hours.

“It was a team effort. We got a shorthanded goal and we played good defense for the whole game,” said Dale Hunter.  “We got a shutout because of it. When they did get through, we stood tall.”

Hunter is right about that.  After being out of sorts for much of the last six weeks, even when they were winning games, the Capitals looked like a team.  They finished their checks.  They were coherent in their coverage.  They were smart with the puck.  And, with the glaring (and embarrassing) exception of Marcus Johansson late, they made the most of their chances.

“Really big 48 hours. Good win yesterday and we carried it right over into today,” said Brooks Laich, who scored the opening goal with a shorthanded tally.  “Maybe we got lucky with the schedule and they’re tired, and have to travel, but really, really big 48 hours for us.”

What does it mean? Read on!

After Sunday’s win against the Maple Leafs, the Capitals are now on the road for a trip that will help define their season.  Sunday’s win certainly didn’t.  Because with all due respect to Phil Kessel, who is having a banner year, the Maple Leafs are a terrible hockey team.  They also happen to be missing the second leading scorer at the moment, which makes it easy to key in on Kessel.  The Caps did that, just like many teams are doing to Alex Ovechkin so successfully.

That was a nice win, but it’s not one to hang your hat on and it’s not one that certainly validates Dale Hunter’s system or coaching style.  It wasn’t a “playoff hockey” type of game.  This nice little streak doesn’t do any of those things either.  It just doesn’t.

With games against the Islanders, Philadelphia, Chicago, Winnipeg, and Detroit on their swing, Washington will be tested against some of the NHL’s best teams, particularly those who are so good at home.

By the end of next week, we should have a much better gauge of the Caps’ playoff chances and what type of team they can really be this year under Dale Hunter and without Nicklas Backstrom.

What does it mean?

It means very little.  These three wins and seven points are great.  They’re critical for the playoff chase.  But they don’t give us a good picture of this team’s potential, as the road trip will.  The Caps beat two mediocre teams at home and they beat a good, but struggling and injured, team on the road.

Again, I am not taking anything away from three (and a half) gutsy performances.  I’m not diminishing the value of seven points.  But the games on either side of the Boston game are ones you expect great teams, or even average ones, to win.  Especially with how good the Capitals have been at home.  The middle game was excellent, but one game does not a trend make.

The Capitals haven’t proven anything.

This is their chance to do that.  I’m not sure that anyone knows if they will be able to do it, but it will certainly be an entertaining way to finish the year.

Maybe, after playing almost meaningless hockey games over the season’s final three weeks for the last three seasons, the Caps will get some sort of spark in the playoffs.

Maybe.

And that’s just about all we know.

Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Caps for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here.

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