The Columbus Blue Jackets' six-game road trip got off to a great start out west, but they've hit a rough patch while working their way back east
Their finale should be their toughest test yet.
Columbus will close its longest road trip of the season against the Washington Capitals, who will be looking to win 10 straight at home for the first time in nearly nine years.
The Blue Jackets (18-18-4) were stumbling along at 11-13-3 through the first two months of the season, but have gone 7-5-1 since Dec. 11 as they attempt to increase their chances of reaching the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
If that's to happen, Steve Mason will likely be the biggest reason. The rookie goaltender has been sensational over the past month, going 7-5-0 with a 1.49 goals-against average.
He recorded three consecutive shutouts to close December, blanking Anaheim and Los Angeles to start Columbus' road trip. He made 23 saves on Jan. 2 in a 6-1 win at Colorado.
The next day in St. Louis, though, he had his worst game of the season in a 5-2 loss. Mason then stopped all 23 shots he faced in the first two periods, but gave up two goals in the third before Detroit added an empty-netter to beat the Blue Jackets 3-0 on Jan. 6.
"We had been good up to that point," Mason said. "To give those two up definitely hurt us."
That was the Jackets' third shutout defeat in their last eight games, and they also lost Rick Nash - who leads Columbus with 17 goals and 22 assists - to a lower-body injury.
Selected to his fourth All-Star team on Wednesday, Nash is expected to be held out against Washington and on Saturday at home against Minnesota. Backup goaltender Pascal Leclaire also will miss at least a week with a lower-body injury after going on injured reserve on Thursday.
But it was Nash and Mason that starred when Washington (27-11-3) visited Columbus on Nov. 29. Nash had two goals and Mason made 26 saves - six on All-Star Alex Ovechkin - in a 3-0 victory.
The Capitals then lost 5-3 at home against Florida, but haven't fallen there since. Washington is 14-2-0 overall since Dec. 4, and 9-0-0 at home.
The Caps haven't won 10 in a row on home ice since Jan. 4-Feb. 23, 2000.
Bruce Boudreau's team has outscored its opponents 34-15 during its home streak, but has had to sweat out its last two results. Ovechkin's second-period short-handed goal held up in a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers on Saturday, then Viktor Kozlov scored the only shootout goal in a 2-1 victory against Philadelphia on Tuesday.
That lifted Washington to 18-1-1 at the Verizon Center - the East's best home record - and it's never had a better overall record midway through an 82-game season.
"It's one thing to get there; it's another thing to stay there," Boudreau said. "We like it up there. And I think the guys like it up there, and they want to be known as one of the better teams."
The Blue Jackets will have their hands full with Ovechkin, who had 16 goals and nine assists in his last 13 home games before going without a point against Philadelphia.
The Capitals are 2-0-0 with a tie at home against Columbus. The teams last met in Washington on Oct. 5, 2005, when Ovechkin scored twice in a 3-2 win.