ARLINGTON, Va. -- As the Washington Capitals prepared to open the second half of their season Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes, defenseman Karl Alzner thought back to a time when it seemed this part of the year was reserved for him and his teammates to bury their Southeast Division rivals.
"That's one of those things we always talked about in meetings," Alzner said, "that this is our chance to put some distance between ourselves and the teams below us.
"You'd usually try just a little bit harder against them to try to put them out of the race so you could focus on climbing rather than on who's coming up behind you."
The Capitals won four straight Southeast Division titles from 2008-11, the latter three coming by an average of almost 18 points over their closest competition.
But as Washington begins the second half of this year's abbreviated 48-game season, the short-term goal isn't to bury anybody. Instead, it's to simply stay afloat themselves and remain in Stanley Cup Playoff contention.
The Capitals hit the midway point a season-high eight points behind the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes with a crucial home-and-home series against Carolina beginning Tuesday in D.C. and concluding Thursday in Raleigh, N.C.
"We've got to get back on track no matter who we're playing," forward Eric Fehr said, "but especially the fact that it is Carolina leading the division right now, we have to take those games to give ourselves the chance to get back into it."
Coach Adam Oates said, "Obviously a couple teams have given themselves a little bit of a cushion, but for the most part it's a dog fight. We have to win our games, and division games are important. We have two in a row now and we need them."
The Capitals do have a few things working in their favor, namely another four meetings against Carolina, plus the fact that only the Boston Bruins have played fewer than Washington's 24 games.
There is also the possible return to the lineup for top-six forward Brooks Laich, who has missed the entire season with a groin injury. Laich skated with his teammates Tuesday for the first time since Feb. 16, although there is still no timetable for his return.
"I think we're starting to find our game," Laich said. "I think the first 15 games we were sort of trying to find it, and I think it has come a long way now. I thought we've played some great hockey -- we had a little blip in the radar this weekend [with consecutive losses to the New York Islanders and New York Rangers], but I think this team is very capable."
The back-to-back losses against the Islanders and Rangers marked the start of a demanding stretch of 17 games in 30 days for the Capitals. Eleven of those games come on the road, where Washington is an Eastern Conference worst 3-7-1.
"We have to win," forward Jay Beagle said. "It's that simple. We've got to put it on ourselves every night and really lay it on the line to get the win and to keep climbing the standings. If we win and keep climbing, we can play every night and it shouldn't matter. We just can't get caught up in the schedule and look too far ahead. We can't be like, ‘OK, out of the next four games we have to win three.' We can't get caught up in the numbers games."
The most condensed part of the schedule comes from March 16-26, when the Capitals play seven games in 11 days. (Washington will play as many games in Winnipeg over that stretch -- two -- as it will in D.C.)
There are also three more sets of back-to-backs in the next four weeks, with Washington having gone 0-2-1 in the second game of back-to-backs during the first half of the season.
"Definitely the excuses are out of all our minds, we've answered all those questions for a long time now," Oates said.
"It's the halfway point. We know what we're supposed to do. We know where we're supposed to put the puck; we know how we're supposed to play. It's just refining details and figuring out ways to stay ready for games, because the schedule is so grueling. … The next bunch of games the schedule is grueling. We have to figure out ways to get up every single night, because they're important."
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