With the NHL having now released the schedule for the shortened 2012-13 regular season (NHL.com), it is time for fans of the Washington Capitals to look at the schedule and start marking their calendars in anticipation of some key games.
With no inter-conference games to speak of, the 48-game season will almost have the feel of a playoff game each and every night.
In looking at the Caps schedule, there are so many great games on the horizon that it is hard to really pick the ones that are most enticing.
Of course, the season opener this coming Saturday on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning will be a big game.
The same can be said for the home opener against the Winnipeg Jets just three nights later.
And, without question, games that take place in March and April figure to be huge. How huge is tough to say until the season gets going and there is a better idea of which teams will rise up and which ones will fall by the wayside.
But in looking at the Caps' schedule right now, five games stand out as games any Caps fan simply can't miss.
The Caps first big test comes less than a week into the season against the defending Eastern Conference champs
The Caps won't have to wait long to see just how well they stack up against the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
On Jan. 25—a mere six days into the season—the Caps will travel to the Prudential Center to take on the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils.
This game has all sorts of sub-plots to it.
It will be Adam Oates' first game against the team he helped lead to the Stanley Cup Finals one year ago. Oates was an assistant coach for the Devils the past two seasons. How will Oates fare in his first game against the Devils?
It will be fun to find out.
For the Devils, it will be a good test to see where they are as well. The team lost its best weapon during the offseason when Zach Parise signed with the Minnesota Wild (ESPN). A team like the Capitals should be a good indicator as to whether the Devils are still good enough to, perhaps, repeat as Eastern Conference champs.
For the Caps, the Devils have usually given them fits. Last season, the Caps won the first meeting between the two teams and then lost the next two in a shootout. In the final meeting back on March 2, 2012, the Caps were crushed on home ice, 5-0.
If the Caps hope to succeed this season—especially with the season being so short—they will have to excel against the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
A win over the defending Eastern Conference champions—on their home ice, in just the fourth game—would be a great way to start the season.
Just a few days into February, one of the biggest rivalries in the NHL will be resumed.
The Pittsburgh Penguins come to town.
What more needs to be said?
Well a bit actually.
Last season, the teams split the four games played between them. Each game was decided by just a single goal and two of the games were decided in overtime.
But Sidney Crosby only played in one of those games and did not play in the final two meetings.
The game on Feb. 3 should see a healthy Crosby and a refocused Alexander Ovechkin going at it. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Another interesting little sub-plot to this game is that despite the intense rivalry between the two teams, the Caps traded goaltender Tomas Vokoun to the Penguins—prior to the NHL draft—for a seventh round pick (Washington Post).
Will the Pens start Vokoun in net against his former team? What exactly does Vokoun still have left in the tank?
Both teams figure to be in the hunt for one of the top playoff spots in the Eastern Conference and this early season tilt at Verizon Center should be a great game to watch.
Just six days after the Caps square off with the Penguins, they get their next big test. The defending Southeast division champion Florida Panthers come to the Verizon Center.
Of course, it was the Panthers who dethroned the Caps and ended their four-year run at the top of the Southeast division.
The Panthers did not make a whole lot of moves in the offseason.
So the Panthers do not look like they gained or lost much. They will largely be the same team they were a season ago. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it might not be that good either.
That is why the first meeting between the two teams on Feb. 9 will be important.
It will be the 12th game of the season for the Caps, right at the quarter point of the campaign. By then, it will be apparent which teams are starting to rise to the top of their respective divisions.
For the Panthers and the Caps, the game will be a big test for both teams and will certainly provide some indication as to whether each team is going to be a contender or a pretender.
The Panthers usually do not fare too well against the Caps. Last season, Washington took four of the six meetings.
In a shortened season, if that pattern repeats itself, Florida might find themselves in too deep of a hole to really challenge for the Southeast division crown.
And if the Caps can dominate the Panthers again, the chances of Washington recapturing the divisional crown would look very good indeed.
On Feb. 17, the Caps will travel back to the scene of where everything ended last season—Madison Square Garden—to do battle with the New York Rangers once again.
As most Caps fans will recall, Washington dropped a tough game seven to the Rangers in last seasons Eastern Conference Semifinals, bringing an end to the Caps' somewhat unlikely playoff run last spring.
This will be the biggest early season test possible for the Caps. The Rangers did not lose much of anything in the offseason. In fact, they became stronger by acquiring Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade over the summer of 2012 (ESPN).
While losing Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov will be felt, getting an elite player like Nash and plugging him into the lineup has gotten fans of the Blueshirts very optimistic about their teams chances to capture the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1994.
The Rangers are simply loaded. In addition to Nash, they have players like Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards and Marc Stall. And do not forget about Henrik Lundqvist in net. All Lundqvist did last season was win the Vezina Trophy and get the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals.
For the Caps then, going into Madison Square Garden and tangling with the Rangers almost a month into the season will really show the Caps where they are. The Caps gave the Rangers everything the Blueshirts wanted last spring—and then some.
If the Caps are truly going to contend for the Stanley Cup, going into New York and beating a team that has to be considered a strong contender would be a positive step in the right direction.
Alexander Semin returns to D.C for the first time on February 26, 2013
When the Carolina Hurricanes come to town, expect the two Southeast division rivals to amp up the intensity.
This will not be a usual regular season meeting between the two teams. Alexander Semin will return to Washington and face his former team for the first time.
As most know, the Caps allowed Semin to go to free agency this past offseason and Semin signed a one-year, $7 million deal with the rival Hurricanes (NHL.com).
Semin rose to prominence as a member of the Capitals and he along with Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green formed what had been termed as the "Core Four." A group that helped to lift the Caps from obscurity and make them a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.
Undoubtedly, Semin will want to show his former team what a mistake they made by letting him go.
Also, Ovechkin—despite his fondness for his countryman—might want to show Semin exactly why he was always considered the "other Alex" during his time in Washington.
The Hurricanes should be greatly improved from a season ago. In addition to Semin, the Hurricanes also acquired Jordan Staal in a trade they made with the Pittsburgh Penguins back in June 2012 (NHL.com).
Semin and Staal alone make the Hurricanes a legitimate threat to win the Southeast division this season. If there is a team that can stand in their way, it might just be the Caps.
Last season, the two teams split its six meetings with the Caps winning the first three but the Canes winning the next three—including two shutouts in which Carolina outscored Washington 8-0.
With the additions of Semin and Staal, the Canes will pose a huge challenge for the Caps.
And with Semin returning to Washington, the Verizon Center should be dripping with drama on Feb. 26.