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Capitals will have to beat the best to make playoffs

by Adam Vingan

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals' road to a Stanley Cup Playoff berth is littered with potential potholes.

Beginning with a home-and-home series with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday and Tuesday, seven of Washington's next nine games are against teams currently ranked among the NHL's top 10.

Six of the Capitals' seven opponents during this stretch occupy playoff spots as of Monday, and the one that does not, the Vancouver Canucks, is not exactly a pushover despite its recent pratfalls.

A three-game road trip through California awaits March 18-22. The Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks are tied for the second-most home wins League-wide with 24. In regards to the Sharks specifically, the Capitals are 1-15-2 against them since the start of the 1999-00 season and have not won in San Jose since Oct. 30, 1993.

The Washington Capitals' road to a Stanley Cup Playoff berth is littered with potential potholes. They'll have to navigate a difficult schedule in order to extend their postseason streak to seven. (Photo: Greg Fiume/NHLI, Dave Reginek/NHLI)

Of the 14 teams this season that have traveled to face the Ducks, Sharks and Los Angeles Kings in succession, only three have earned four or more points.

The Capitals, one point out of the second-wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and three behind the third-place Philadelphia Flyers in the Metropolitan Division, have qualified for the postseason in six consecutive seasons, the fourth-longest active streak in the League.

Extending that streak with 17 regular-season games remaining will surely be a daunting task, but one that the Capitals look forward to tackling.

"You want to play the best, you want to beat the best," left wing Jason Chimera said. "So for us to be the best, you've got to beat the best."

General manager George McPhee was active during the trade deadline last week in an attempt to bolster Washington's roster, acquiring left wing Dustin Penner from the Ducks and goaltender Jaroslav Halak from the Buffalo Sabres.

Penner, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, adds a big body to a team not necessarily known for its net-front presence, while Halak's veteran experience, when combined with Braden Holtby's competitive fire, provides the Capitals with a formidable tandem.

The most intriguing addition is forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, the No. 26 selection in the 2010 NHL Draft.

Expectations surrounding the dazzling 21-year-old are enormous, but the Capitals simply hope he could be the spark that ignites on their push towards the playoffs.

"He's a highly touted prospect here," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "He's waited a couple years to come over but we expect big things out of him, and hopefully too much pressure doesn't dawn on him and he can just go out and play hockey."

Throughout the season the Capitals have been their worst enemy, as self-inflicted mistakes have been their undoing all too frequently.

In particular, mental lapses after scoring goals, a failure to break out of their own zone efficiently and a heavy reliance on their second-ranked power play are areas the Capitals must key on if they plan to extend their season.

Not having a postseason berth secured this late in the season is not an unfamiliar position for Washington; in each of the past two seasons, the Capitals solidified their spot within the final three games of the season.

Attempting to do so again is an opportunity they relish.

"You love games like these," Chimera said. "If you don't love these games, you shouldn't be playing in them. It's going to be a good test, but we're confident in ourselves."

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