Success on a season-high six-game road trip will likely determine if the Washington Capitals are headed to the postseason for the first time since 2003.
With Alexander Ovechkin still chasing several milestones, the Capitals start their swing on Tuesday night against the Nashville Predators, who are struggling at home as they also seek a return to the postseason.
The Capitals (35-30-8) haven’t faced Nashville since a 5-2 loss in December 2005. Washington is 1-3-0 with a tie all-time against the Predators (36-29-8) at the Sommet Center, and 4-5-0 with a tie versus them overall. The Capitals are just 15-15-5 on the road this season.
After facing Chicago on Wednesday, the Capitals will meet every Southeast Division rival on this road trip before closing 2007-08 with home matchups against Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida.
Washington, which was one of three teams this season to fire its coach this season, begins play in 10th place in the Eastern Conference - two points behind Philadelphia for the eighth and final playoff spot - and is playing well down the stretch.
Alexander Semin and Viktor Kozlov scored shootout goals in a 2-1 victory over Boston on Sunday as the Caps won their third straight. Two players Washington acquired at last month’s trade deadline also were key in the victory. Sergei Fedorov, picked up from Columbus, scored his first goal for his new team and Cristobal Huet, formerly of Montreal, finished with 39 saves.
But coach Bruce Boudreau, who replaced Glen Hanlon in November, said his team appeared tight.
“It looked like we were afraid to make a mistake instead of, ‘Let’s go get them,’ and play the way we can,” he said. “That’s the difference between teams that aren’t in it, they play loose. … We were tight a little bit out there because of the importance of the game.”
Ovechkin, the league leader with 57 goals and 99 points, had his eight-game point streak snapped. He had nine goals, including two game-winners, and eight assists in leading the Caps to a 5-3-0 record during his run.
With his next point, Ovechkin will become the first player in franchise history with two 100-point seasons. He also needs three goals to be the first with 60 in a season since Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux (69) and Jaromir Jagr (62) in 1995-96.
Ovechkin, who is three points shy of 300 for his career, scored in his only game against the Predators as a rookie in 2005.
Nashville has dropped a season-high four in a row (0-3-1) at home, but posted a 3-1 win at league-best Detroit on Saturday. Dan Hamhuis, Rich Peverley and Jerred Smithson - who had a combined 10 goals coming in - all scored, and Dan Ellis made 34 saves to improve to 19-9-2.
“We really put the pedal down,” said Ellis, who has never faced Washington. “Now we realize the way we have to play.”
The Predators are 20 points behind the Red Wings in the Central, but ninth in the West. Nashville has reached the playoffs the last three seasons, but has been ousted in the first round each time.
Coach Barry Trotz may continue to look to leading goal scorer J.P. Dumont to help get the Preds back into the playoffs. Dumont, who’s scored 27 goals, has points in four of his last five games against Washington totaling one goal and five assists.
Dumont, second on the club with 63 points, needs three more to match his career high set last season.