When the Washington Capitals embarked on a pivotal five-game road trip early last week, they hoped they could build on their recently completed and equally pivotal five-game homestand, which ended with a 2-2-1 record. After Thursday's 2-1 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Caps return to D.C. the same way they left it: with a 2-2-1 record and hanging onto the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
For reference, here are the Eastern Conference standings updated after Washington's game, courtesy of NHL.com:
The Caps trail the seventh-place Ottawa Senators by three points, but are just one point ahead of the Buffalo Sabres for eighth. Four points behind the Sabres are the Winnipeg Jets with 76 points, but the latter has played in one less game. Coincidentally, two of Washington's next three games are against the Jets (Friday at Verizon Center) and the Sabres (Tuesday at Verizon Center).
The term "must-win" has been thrown around so much this season that it has lost meaning, but Friday's game is as close as it gets. Last Friday, the Caps had an opportunity to distance themselves from the Jets, but the latter earned a 3-2 win that turned a possible six-point deficit into just two points. If the Caps can exact revenge Friday, then they will open a seven-point lead on the Jets, which will likely end any hopes of them making the playoffs.
Meanwhile, looking ahead to Tuesday, a loss to the Sabres might put the Caps on the outside looking in once again. The next three games -- there is a Sunday matinee against the Minnesota Wild at Verizon Center sandwiched in between Friday and Tuesday's games -- will be critical to Washington's postseason aspirations.
Judging by the way things are going lately, it seems that a first-round series between a top-ranked Pittsburgh Penguins team (as of now, they are one point out of the first seed in the East after winning 14 of 16) and the eighth-place Caps could happen. I can think of one person in this city (or more specifically, on this website) who would be happy about that from a Pittsburgh standpoint. You have my permission to throw things at him.
Adam Vingan is co-founder and editor of Kings Of Leonsis, a Caps-centric blog, and is the Capitals Editor for SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter @Adam_KOL and e-mail your story ideas to adamvingan (at) gmail.com.