The Washington Capitals have now played 26 games, officially passing the halfway point of the shortened 2013 NHL season.
Currently, the Caps sit in third place in the Southeast Division and 12th place in the Eastern Conference. If the playoffs began today, the Capitals would not participate.
But Washington is not out of it yet. And if they want to qualify for the postseason, they will have to win a bunch of big games.
Here are the five most important games remaining on the Washington Capitals' schedule.
After Thursday night's games, the Buffalo Sabres occupy the 14th spot in the Eastern Conference standings with 23 points, while the Caps are just ahead of them in 12th place, also with 23 points. So, the March 17 game is a great opportunity for Washington to separate themselves from their nearest conference opponent on their march up the playoff rankings.
But there is something else that makes this game so vital. This game against the Sabres is the second half of the Capitals' third set of back-to-back games since February 26. And in the second of those games, the Capitals have struggled badly.
After March 17, the Capitals have three more sets of back-to-back games, so they better remember how to win the second of those two games. What better time to start than on March 17 against the Sabres.
And, as if this game didn't mean enough already, it will mark the beginning of a brutal week for the Capitals, in which they play four games in six nights, the last three of which will be on the road against teams with better records.
Simply put, this stretch of games could make or break the Capitals' season.
It is time to exact some revenge.
Twice this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have smoked the Washington Capitals. The Pens won both meetings so far, by a combined scored of 11-5, including a 5-2 victory in Pittsburgh on February 7. For the Penguins, "the victory was the first at home in regulation against the Capitals in almost six years." (Chris Adamski for NHL.com)
But the Capitals have to travel back to Da Burgh to close out the season series.
Unlike the Buffalo game two days earlier, however, the Capitals are not jockeying for playoff position with the Penguins.
No, Pittsburgh is too far ahead at this point to worry about that. Through Wednesday's games, the Pittsburgh Penguins were 20-8-0 for 40 points, good enough to lead the competitive Atlantic Division and be tied with the Montreal Canadiens atop the Eastern Conference standings.
Instead, the Capitals need to treat this game as the next bitter chapter in their most heated rivalry. Focusing on the animosity that this matchup can create will increase the Capitals' intensity. And a win against their arch nemesis may just jump start their season.
Yes, that is correct:
The Washington Capitals will play the Winnipeg Jets.
On two consecutive nights.
That's one hellacious road trip.
This season, however, the Jets have lost some of the mystique of their own barn, as they are currently 6-6-0 at home en route to eighth in the Eastern Conference standings with 30 points. The Jets' home record is in stark contrast to the impressive 23-13-5 mark the Jets had during the 2011-12 season, in their first full year back in The Peg.
Even so, the MTS Centre is not a hospitable place. Andrew Kulyk of Stadium Journey had this to say about the Jets home venue:
One could best describe this arena as a modern day Boston Garden. Small (15,004 seat capacity), intimate, and noisy. Fans are right on top of the action...Fans here are very noisy, very passionate and they know their hockey.
The Washington Capitals need a new travel agent.
This game marks the final time this season that the Capitals can gain ground on the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes.
The Caps and Canes will play each other five times this season, and the two rivals close out the series at the Verizon Center.
So far, the series has been somewhat mixed for the Caps. They shut out the Canes on February 26 by a score of 3-0, then Carolina returned the favor on March 12, shutting out the Caps 4-0. That game marked the first of a home-and-home series, which the Capitals closed out in Raleigh on March 14 with a come-from-behind 3-2 victory in regulation.
If the Capitals can get close to the Canes in the games leading up to their tilt on April 11, then this "four-point game" may slingshot Washington past Carolina and into the division lead.
Welcome to the Last Chance Saloon.
The Capitals have a season-ending duel that may decide their postseason fate.
And the schedule makers could not have picked a better opponent for the Washington Capitals than the Big Bad Black themselves, the Boston Bruins.
These two combatants have had several memorable duels in recent history, including a 4-3 overtime thriller the Capitals won on March 5 after trailing Boston 3-0 at the first intermission.
And of course, there was the epic battle in last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. These two posses played the closest seven-game playoff series in NHL history from a statistical standpoint, as all seven games were decided by only one goal. And four of the seven games went to overtime, including the decisive Game 7.
In fact, Joel Ward's OT winner occurred exactly one year and two days before the Caps and Bruins are scheduled to complete the 2013 NHL season.
As with that Game 7, one of these teams may not live to play another day after their April 27 showdown.
The Hockey Gods would not have it any other way.