by David Elfin

After an 18-day break for the Olympics, the good news/bad news Capitals finally return to action tonight at Florida.

The good news is that despite more than its share of stumbles through the first 59 games of the season, Washington is just three points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 23 games remaining.

“I think we’re a little upset with the way we’ve performed and the position we’ve put ourselves in,” said defenseman Karl Alzner. “We want to be one of the teams that everybody kind of looks up to and says, ‘Do what they do and you’ll be successful.’ We’re frustrated that we haven’t done that. We want things to come a little easier. It takes a ton of hard work to get those breaks. We just need to work harder and work smarter. It’s simpler sometimes than we make it.”

The bad news is that the Caps are tied with Columbus and Ottawa with 63 points while Carolina and New Jersey are a victory behind at 61. So it wouldn’t take much for Washington to fall to 13th place.

“We know that every game’s important,” said defenseman Mike Green, who’s back after missing the last five games before the break with a concussion. “We’ll obviously watch the scoreboard [every night] and see who’s winning, but none of that changes our mindframe.”

The good news is that the Caps are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games against the Panthers and went 5-2-1 in their last eight games before the break.

“There’s no reason why not,” coach Adam Oates said when asked if that recent success can carry over after the long layoff. “We showed a little tape from the [3-0 victory over New Jersey on Feb. 8] just to try and snap into a little bit of a game mode. I think the guys will get into it real quick. The break’s great, but halfway through it, you start thinking about hockey. [Now] you’re tired of practice. You want to play games.”

Left wing Jason Chimera said the Caps – except for their five Olympians – took advantage of the extended break to get rejuvenated, heal their bodies, and work on their strength, an aspect of the sport that gets neglected during the grind of a typical 82-game season.

“Sometimes you don’t welcome breaks when you’re playing good hockey, but we’ve got some bodies back [Green and center Mikhail Grabovski with defenseman Jack Hillen close to playing for the first time this season],” Chimera said. “And the rest of us who weren’t in the Olympics kinda got a reboot of energy for coming down the stretch.”

The bad news is that after tonight Washington doesn’t play another Eastern Conference team on the outside looking in at a playoff berth until April 4, by which point there will be just six games left.

The good news is that while the Caps play 16 of their final 23 games against teams that are currently postseason-bound, they’re a respectable 11-10-6 against those 11 foes.

The bad news is that 13 of the 23 games are on the road where Washington is just 10-13-5.

The good news is that the Caps went 17-4-2 during their final 23 games last season to win their fifth Southeast Division title in six years. Fourteen of the 16 skaters who played at least 400 minutes on that team are back as are both goalies.

“That’s something positive that we have to take with us, especially now in this playoff push,” said center Nicklas Backstrom. “Hopefully, we can do it again.”

The bad news is that while nine of the final 23 games last season were against Washington’s Southeast rivals, 10 of the this year’s final 23 are against teams from the more powerful Western Conference.

“You wish you had more four-point games so you can make a jump in the standings, but if you can get some wins against the West, you can really help yourself,” said Chimera, whose Caps are just 2-4-2 against the eight Western teams they play over the next 44 days.

Despite all their ups and downs, the Caps’ belief that they remain a playoff team hasn’t been shaken. Despite right wing Martin Erat request to be dealt, they’re not expecting a roster shakeup with the trade deadline looming in six days.

“We haven’t played our best, but we’re still just a point out of the playoffs,” Chimera said before eighth-place Detroit moved three points ahead by winning last night at fourth-place Montreal. “And we’re not too far out of second [four points behind the New York Rangers] in our division. I don’t think we need to make any moves. We’ve got the horses in there to make the playoffs. We just gotta do it.”

They have done it for six years running, but with five of their 10 games during the first 18 days of March against division leaders Boston, Pittsburgh and Anaheim, seven might not be Washington’s lucky number. And with the next four games after that against the Bruins and formidable Los Angeles and San Jose, the Caps might be behind the eight ball before they even get to April this spring.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.


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