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Capitals face tough road trip before Winter Classic

by Adam Vingan

WASHINGTON -- The remainder of the Washington Capitals' road to the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will wind through the Metropolitan Division, a weeklong journey that could have sizable implications.

Before the Capitals host the Chicago Blackhawks on New Year's Day at Nationals Park (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, TVA), they conclude their December schedule with three straight road games against divisional opponents.

"We're aware of the situation here that we have a big schedule coming up here," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. "We've got to be focused and make sure we're not taking it lightly. Every point is important right now. We've got to be sharp here."

They start by facing the New York Rangers on Tuesday, the first game this season between two teams that have recently been flip-flopping in the standings.

Washington is 7-1-2 in its past 10 games, but New York has kept pace with an 8-2-0 record. The Capitals leapfrogged the idle Rangers on Monday in a 2-1 victory against the Ottawa Senators.

"[The] Rangers in the standings have been just kind of exchanging places [with us], whether it be wild-card or third in the division," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "You know that they're going to be tough down the stretch. They always finish stronger than they start, so we're going to have to be really good."

Upon returning from the NHL's three-day Christmas break, the Capitals will play the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday and New York Islanders on Dec. 29.

Pittsburgh and New York lead Washington by nine and six points, respectively. The Capitals have yet to play the Penguins this season and split a home-and-home series with the Islanders that sandwiched Thanksgiving.

"That's a great part about this division is that some of the teams that maybe started off a little slow, us and [the Columbus Blue Jackets] and even the Rangers, we're all sort of heating up," coach Barry Trotz said. "And the teams that sort of got out ahead are cooling off a little bit. Hopefully we can tighten this thing up as we go on."

Tuesday begins the Capitals' third three-game road trip this month. They won five of six (5-0-1) on the previous two trips. The only loss was in a League-record 20-round shootout against the Florida Panthers on Dec. 16. At 10-5-2, Washington has the best road record in the Eastern Conference.

Washington has been buoyed by superb goaltending from Braden Holtby, who is 7-1-2 in December with a 1.97 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. Backstrom, known for his playmaking abilities, has become a potent goal-scorer with six goals in his past five games.

The Capitals are understandably taking the one-game-at-a-time approach, but they are aware of how much a successful week leading up to the NHL Winter Classic would mean.

"It's going to be a big week," Niskanen said. "Certainly if we have any intention of catching those teams, beating them head-to-head is the best chance to do it or at least jumpstart it.

"The points mean the same, but it sure seems like they mean more against those teams that you're trying to catch."

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