The Washington Capitals (9-7) will take a season-high four-game winning streak on the road for tough tests against Western Conference heavyweights Phoenix (Nov. 9) and Colorado (Nov. 10).
"There's no excuses, no crutches," left winger Brooks Laich said after the team's brief skate Nov. 8. "It's a big task against two good teams. We want to see how we fare."
Back-to-back road games aren't much fun, but at least the Capitals can leave their vitamin D supplements at home for sunny Phoenix. Plus, they'll see old pal Mike Ribeiro, who amassed 49 points for the Capitals during the 2012-13 season. The Coyotes signed Ribeiro, a 33-year-old center, to a four-year contract.
In Colorado, the Caps might see former teammate Semyon Varlamov, who made 40 saves during the Avalanche's 5-1 victory Oct. 12 at the Verizon Center. A Russian goaltender, Varlamov has continued playing despite Denver police arresting him Oct. 30 on charges of domestic abuse.
Here are some of the questions facing the Capitals for their next two games.
Can the Capitals maintain their NHL-best penalty kill? Laich, a key member of the penalty-kill unit, said yes.
"As long as we can keep guys healthy and keep the units the same, the results shouldn't be any different," he said.
Washington has killed off 90.3 percent of its penalties and has allowed one goal in 26 shorthanded situations on the road. The Capitals gave up one power-play goal during a 3-2 shootout victory against the Minnesota Wild Nov. 7, but also killed off a late penalty that extended into a 4-on-3 in overtime.
"You're down a man, you're playing against the other team's top offensive guys, so there's a huge sense of pride in killing penalties," Laich said. "The killers know that that's their job. You're paid to execute."
Will backup goalie Michal Neuvirth get a start? Head coach Adam Oates said it was likely that Neuvirth would be in the lineup for one of the games, in place of Braden Holtby. Oates said he hadn't decided who would start against Phoenix.
Neuvirth saved 31 shots during Washington's 3-2 shootout victory against the Florida Panthers Nov. 2. He has a .913 save percentage and a 2.79 goals-against average.
"If we stick to our plan and play 60 minutes, we can beat any team," Neuvirth said.
The Capitals drafted both Varlamov (first round) and Neuvirth (second round) in 2006, and traded Varlamov to Colorado during the 2011 offseason for a first- and second-round pick.
The goalies squared off earlier this season when the Avalanche beat the Capitals, 5-1. Colorado's Alex Tanguay scored twice.
Neuvirth called Varlamov (.933 save percentage, 2.10 GAA) a great teammate, but declined to comment about the criminal charges.
Capitals rookie right wing Tom Wilson said he wanted another shot at Varlamov, who stopped the Wilson's point-blank shot during the first game.
"He robbed me pretty good," the 19-year-old Wilson said. "I was just getting into the league and wasn't expecting the goalies to be so quick, and he's definitely one of the quickest. He came across low pad and stopped it. Maybe I'll get another look on him."
Can the Capitals take advantage of the Coyotes' poor penalty kill? The Coyotes' 78.8 percent kill rate is eighth-worst in the NHL, creating a mismatch for Washington's league-best power play (28.1 percent). The Caps have scored on five of their past nine power-play opportunities.
Alex Ovechkin has a league-high seven power-play goals. In all, Ovechkin has 13 goals and six assists during 14 games. The apparent shoulder injury that kept him off the ice for two games doesn't appear to be slowing him anymore.
Colorado, through Nov. 7, had the league's fifth-best penalty kill. The Avalanche are 7-1 against Eastern Conference teams.
How will the Caps handle back-to-back games? The Coyotes have won six consecutive home games. Phoenix had a five-game winning streak before a 5-2 loss to Anaheim Nov. 6. That was the second of back-to-back games. The Caps will get the Avalanche (12-2 through Nov. 7) on the back end of the trip.
"That's the schedule," Laich said. "Deal with it. Be a professional. Prepare yourself the same way. Colorado plays high tempo. We want to control their speed and control the pace of the game."
Oates said it's possible that lineup changes would take place for the Avalanche game.
"Hopefully we have a good game [Nov. 9] and we don't have to use all of our energy before Colorado," Oates said, "but if it is, we address it when we wake up the next morning."