Starting tonight when they face the Dallas Stars at Verizon Center, the Capitals will play six straight games against Western Conference foes and they'll play 11 of their next 13 games against the West.
This shouldn't be a daunting task for the Caps, who are 14-3-0 against Western Conference teams this season. But the Caps currently own the largest lead of any division-leading team in the league. As they try to maintain their edge heading down the backstretch and toward the playoffs with 18 games remaining, is it a plus for the Caps to be facing so many unfamiliar foes the rest of the way?
Video: Rinkside Update: Jay Beagle 3/6/17
"I think so," says Caps center Jay Beagle. "Obviously when you see new teams, it keeps you sharper. You're not going in and playing a team that you've already seen maybe three or four times. It's fun playing against new guys that you don't see that often - you only see them twice a year - and facing new challenges."
"I think you could maybe look at it that way, perhaps," allows Caps right wing Justin Williams. "We know the stretch run is filled with teams that are struggling and on their game to try and make the playoffs. They're desperate teams, and these are games that we should embrace, and they should be fun. Regardless of what the outcome is - whether it's 2-1 or 5-1 - they're all meaningful games for us."
In past years, there has been a difference in the way Western clubs and Eastern clubs played the game. As time as marched on, that difference may be getting a bit muddier.
"I think that mentality of the East/West is a few years ago, to be honest," says Williams. "The way the game has gone and what it has transitioned to is speed, and flipping pucks out and creating turnovers through bobbled pucks and icings and beating people in races. It's not really the bump and grind and wearing teams out with your big bodies.
Video: Williams on the upcoming western road trip
"There are some teams that obviously still do that, and we can play that game if we need to play it, but I think the East vs. West type thing is kind of yesteryear."
"I think what you see is you always change toward the champs," opines Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Back when New Jersey was the champion and they were a very defensive trapping team, you saw the Dallas Stars and teams like that [do the same].
"It's a copycat league. You look at Detroit when they were winning their Cups, they were real, real deep and they had all the skill, and teams went that way a little bit. Then L.A. won, and they were a big, heavy, grinding team; and so everybody went that way. Pittsburgh last season did it with depth and quickness, and I think everybody's headed that way now."
Tighten Up - Back toward the middle of the season, the Caps were involved in more high-scoring and lopsided games, and often, a look at the out-of-town scoreboard from those nights would show a fair number of similar results from around the league.
But now that we're down to the final weeks of the season, the Caps - and the other teams in the league as well - seem to be involved in tighter and more low-scoring games.
"I think it's great, and I think it's expected, too," says Caps defenseman John Carlson. "I think everything gets tighter as the end is nearer and teams are jockeying. Every game means so much. When you get to the playoffs, that's what it is, it's do or die almost every night. Some of these teams have already picked up on that mantra. It's good to get tested, where maybe 20 games ago, you'd get out to a good lead and some teams would kind of roll over a little bit.
"It's important for us to have the mindset that regardless of whether we're up or down or whatever, we just need to keep playing the game that brought us to where we are. It's good to win different ways, because not every night in the playoffs is going to be the same. We talk about that a lot."
After rolling up a remarkable streak of 11 straight home games in which they scored five or more goals, the Caps have scored a combined total of five goals over their last three home games, still managing to win all three.
"I think closer games always help you as a group a little more, especially going into the playoffs," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "And it helps in the way that teams are adapting a little bit to the way we play and they're trying to just take away all of our space and frustrate us. That's something that we feel we could get better at, is just keep our composure in those [games]. We've done a good job, but we need to get better, too. It's good that we're being tested that way."
The 700 Club - Caps winger Daniel Winnik is slated to skate in the 700th game of his NHL career tonight against Dallas. A ninth-round choice (265th overall) of the Arizona Coyotes in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Winnik becomes just the eighth member of his draft class to reach the 700-game plateau. In a happy coincidence, he will do so on his 32nd birthday.
Along with linemates Beagle and Tom Wilson, Winnik was instrumental in the Caps' 2-1 overtime win over the Flyers on Saturday. The trio was responsible for shutting down Philly's top line led by Claude Giroux, and as all three are critical components of Washington's penalty killing outfit, they also helped shutdown all six Flyers power play opportunities in that game.
"Obviously for Winnie, it's a great accomplishment," says Beagle. "It's unreal that it lands on his birthday; pretty special. Me and [Wilson] are going to try to have our best effort for him, just to make it something more memorable than it already is.
"It's a great accomplishment for him; we're happy for him. He's been playing great all year, and the chemistry that we've had from the moment that he has come in, it's been easy to play with him and it's been awesome. So we've got to have a good game for him, try and get the win for him, and whatever line we're matched up against, try to do a job."
Winnik logged 17:02 in ice time in Saturday's win over the Flyers, the most he has skated since joining the Caps in a deal with Toronto on Feb. 28, 2016. Playing the final season of his contract, Winnik is in the midst of an excellent season, even though he was a healthy scratch on 10 occasions in the first half of the campaign.
Video: Coach Trotz previews matchup with the Stars
"Winnie is very, very effective as a penalty killer," says Trotz. "I think his experience of playing for other teams has made him a stronger and better player. I think he has a real strong perspective on life, and the game and all of that. He has matured to be a real good player for us.
"When he and Jay have played together, they're very effective at five-on-five and in killing penalties. I think he has carved out a pretty good career for someone who has been bounced around a few times.
"Seven hundred games in this league, and he was a late-round draft choice. You look at the number of guys who have played 700 games who were drafted as low as Daniel, that's a credit to his perseverance and his ability to adapt. We're glad that we made the deal, and he has fit in with our team very, very well."
In The Nets - Holtby gets the net once again for Washington on Monday, seeking his 35th win of the season against Dallas. Starting games on exactly one day's rest - as he'll be doing against the Stars - is right in Holtby's wheelhouse. This season, he is 19-2-2 with six shutouts, a 1.61 GAA and a .940 save pct. in 24 starts with exactly one day in between. Lifetime, he is 77-17-9 with 14 shutouts, a 2.05 GAA and a .929 save pct. under such circumstances.
Holtby will be aiming for his first career win against Dallas, the only NHL team against which he has yet to record a victory. In four career appearances against the Stars, Holtby is 0-3-0 with a 4.42 GAA and an .852 save pct.
At the other end of the ice, the Stars will go with longtime Caps nemesis Kari Lehtonen. Dating back to his days with the Atlanta Thrashers, Lehtonen has been a frequent thorn in the Capitals' side.
Video: Courtney Laughlin with this week's Amtrak On Track
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Stars to look when they take to the ice at Verizon Center on Monday for the finale of Washington's three-game homestand:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
10-Connolly, 20-Eller, 13-Vrana
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 43-Wilson
14-Benn, 90-Spezza, 91-Seguin
40-Elie, 20-Eakin, 25-Ritchie
11-McKenzie, 12-Faksa, 10-Sharp
27-Cracknell, 17-Shore, 83-Hemsky