It's only mid-January, but the Washington Capitals are already facing a pivotal juncture in their season. Their next two games, against two of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference are, for all intents and purposes, Must Win Games.
Tonight, the Caps skate into the Nassau Coliseum to take on the New York Islanders, one of the most down-trodden, talent-poor, financially strapped teams in all of hockey. Their struggles are well documented, and their play on the ice this season has been as poor as their mis-management.
Ranked 14th in the conference (29th in the league), the Islanders have a goal differential of minus-40, fourth worst in the NHL. The Isles have been semi-respectable in their last ten games, going 5-4-1, but the fact of the matter is they are one of the worst teams in the league on offense (2.42 GF/G, 28th) AND defense (3.27 GA/G, 29th). Only mediocre special teams play (18th in PP, 19th in PK) have kept them from being even worse.
They don't have a player in the Top 60 in scoring, and they just traded away their best goalie (noted Caps-killer Dwayne Roloson).
They don't have a single player that's dressed for even one game with a positive +/- rating.
Saturday, the Caps go to Toronto, the butt of league jokes for years now. Once one of the storied franchises in the game, the Leafs (of Laffs, of Loafs, depending on which blogs you read) are now perhaps the league's biggest disappointment.
Playing in Canada's biggest market, with all that tradition and high expectations, they continue to flounder despite who they bring in run things or play the game.
The Leafs are currently 12th in the conference (and 27th overall) and have a minus-25 goal differential, so it's not by accident. They are one spot ahead of the Islanders in GF/G (2.43, 28th), and merely bad on defense, ranked 22nd in GA/G (3.02).
Toronto's leading scorer, Clarke MacArthur, is enjoying his career year having already surpassed his previous season-high points total. Even then, he almost has as many PIMs as points.
The Capitals sit fifth in the conference heading into tonight's game with the Islanders, where about 3,000 fans will watch. They are only seven points out of first, but only eight points out of ninth place.
These four points are crucial to the Capitals, both in the standings and to their pysche. They know where the Islanders and Maple Leafs are in the standings. They know where they themselves are in the standings. These are games that good teams simply must win, regardless that they come during a three-game road trip.
Now is the time to these Caps to galvanize. Forget about the injuries and who's not with them currently. Forget about the media, the hype, the attention. Forget about previous missed opportunities. Forget about everything else.
Work hard. Skate hard. Go to the net. Stand up for your teammates. Stand up for yourselves. Forecheck. Backcheck. Do the little things. Do the dirty work in the corners. Win.
The Captain said it following Tuesday's overtime loss to conference-leading Philly: "We have to go to the net, find our rebound, crash the nets, make some hits -- you know, be angry."
Be angry, indeed.
We'll see what this team is really made of in the next three days. If the Caps don't take two points will they be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs? Far from it. But losses could very well be emotional cripplers that send the team further and quicker down the negative sprial that is following this team lately.
It's easy to get up for a New Year's Day game on national television against the Penguins.