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Red-hot Capitals face challenge after five days off

Coach Barry Trotz says NHL's top team must 'rebuild our game' to keep momentum going

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals headed their separate ways to various warm weather destinations Sunday looking forward to a few days of rest and relaxation during their bye week.

Some of them appeared to already be there in their minds midway through their 6-4 victory against the Anaheim Ducks at Verizon Center on Saturday. There were visions of sandy beaches and frozen drinks dancing in their heads after they led 3-0 and 4-1.

The Capitals snapped back to attention after the Ducks rallied to tie the game 4-4 in the third period. Then rookie Zach Sanford scored his first NHL goal with 2:39 remaining to put them back ahead for good.

That sent them into their break with a winning streak of six games and a home winning streak of 12. 

"It would be a little sour for the first 24 hours or so here if we had to leave with giving up that lead and losing the game," right wing T.J. Oshie said. "So to go out on a winning note here, hopefully all the guys get a really good break, rest up and we'll keep that same focus that we had during this run here."

Video: ANA@WSH: Oshie, Backstrom reach milestones on PPG

Although Oshie said, "I guess maybe you could say we lost focus," Saturday, like most of his teammates, he would not attribute it to thinking ahead to their week off. But left wing Daniel Winnik said, "I'm sure some of us were having images of how we're going to be on a beach in 24 hours."

Looking at the big picture, the letup was understandable. The Capitals have had the pedal to the floor for more than two months.

Following a 2-1 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 3, they were 13-7-3. Since then, they are 26-4-3. 

Since a 2-1 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 29, also their last home loss, they are 19-2-1 and have outscored their opponents 102-47.

They have scored at least five goals in 11 consecutive home games, tying an NHL record established by the Boston Bruins from Dec. 6, 1970 to Jan. 23, 1971.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said he doesn't care about that record.

"I only care about the wins and, hopefully, we can do something in the [Stanley Cup Playoffs]," Trotz said.

That is all that matters for the Capitals. No matter how impressive their regular-season numbers, it's about whether they can advance past the second round for the first time since they made their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998. 

Last season, they ran away with the Presidents' Trophy with 120 points and set a Capitals record with 56 wins but lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the Eastern Conference Second Round. Now they're on the verge of running away from the pack in the regular season again. 

Video: ANA@WSH: Backstrom buries rebound with a backhand

They are 39-11-6 with 84 points, nine ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Penguins in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference, and six ahead of the Minnesota Wild in the League standings. 

Getting some rest now will help down the stretch but the timing of this break is terrible. The rhythm the Capitals have been in since early December will be disrupted. 

They'll be off the ice until they practice Friday. Then they'll play back-to-back matinees, visiting the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 18 (2 p.m. ET; NHLN, FS-D, CSN-DC, NHL.TV) and the New York Rangers the following day (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, NHL.TV).

"The five days off is good for rest and healing up but we have one practice when we get back and then back-to-back games," defenseman Brooks Oprik said. "So you've got to enjoy the rest and use it properly and be professional, make sure you're in tune with your body and getting some good workouts in. If we don't, then we'll get embarrassed the first two games back, that's for sure."

But the Capitals' challenge encompasses more than those two games. They'll have 26 regular-season games remaining to regain their rhythm and be playing their best when the playoffs begin.

The Capitals had a similar break last season when they didn't play between Jan. 19 and Jan. 27 because of a snowstorm that caused the postponement of two games. Combined with the 2015-16 NHL All-Star break, they played one game between Jan. 19 and Feb. 2.

Although the Capitals went 9-1-0 from Feb. 4 to Feb. 22, Trotz said they never got back to the level they were at before the snowstorm.

Video: Barry Trotz on what he's most impressed with by Caps

That was evident when they went 12-8-4 over their final 24 regular-season games. They could not flip the switch when the playoffs began and struggled to finish off the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the first round before losing to the Penguins. 

"Last year when we had the unfortunate snowstorm, we thought the game would come back," Trotz said. "We felt like we would come back but we really didn't build our game because I think our mindset wasn't there."

Trotz said the Capitals are in a better place now and are better prepared to handle the stretch run following their bye week because of their experience last season.

"What we learned is we've got to build our game after the break," he said. "We're going to come out and teams will be playing and we're going to get right into it with a back-to-back, which isn't easy. We're going to have to sort of rebuild our game. It's not going to just come back. You have to rebuild it."

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