Important road trip looms for Washington

Almost exactly one year ago, the Capitals began a rampage through the NHL with a short two-game road trip to Florida.

A 7-4 loss at Tampa Bay on Jan. 12 was followed by a 5-4 shootout win against the Panthers the next day. That was the start of a franchise-record 14-game winning streak and virtually secured the Southeast Division title for Washington before the NHL even broke for the Winter Olympics in mid-February. The Caps led the division by 16 points at the start of the streak and by 27 at the end of it.

The Southeast Division landscape is far different this time around as Washington begins the same two-game trip on Tuesday night at Florida. For one thing, it is no longer in first place. That honor belongs to Tampa Bay (25-13-5, 55 points), which beat the Caps (24-12-6, 54 points) at Verizon Center last week 1-0 in overtime. So is it better for Washington to have a fight on its hands this time around?

"People were saying we weren't focused last year because we ran away with our division," forward Brooks Laich said. "But we were still trying to win the league. This year it's the same thing. I'll have words with anyone that says we take nights off -- whether we're up in the division by 20 points or we're battling for the division lead."

Caps notes
» Forward Boyd Gordon, who last played against the Rangers on Dec. 12, did travel with the team to Florida. He is close to returning from a right foot infection.
» Boudreau said that goalie Michal Neuvirth was likely to get a start either Tuesday or Wednesday. He last played Dec. 23 against Pittsburgh.
» Washington took advantage of an open roster spot and recalled forward Brian Willsie, 32, from AHL Hershey. Willsie had 19 goals and 22 assists for the Caps in 2005-06.

Washington will be without forward Alex Semin, who took a hip to the thigh on Saturday night against the Panthers and missed the third period. He did not travel to Florida and will miss at least the next two games, according to coach Bruce Boudreau. Semin has hit the skids after scoring 18 goals by Nov. 28. He hasn't scored since and has just five assists during that 14-game span.

This is a big stretch for the Caps. They have two more division games this week after losing to Tampa in overtime and then beating Florida 3-2 last week. And a game against Vancouver looms at home Friday. The Canucks (27-8-6, 60 points) entered play Monday night with the NHL's best record. That's a mantle Washington remembers well.

"It's not a runaway that's for sure. The games that we're playing, every one means something," Boudreau said. "It's not like Florida is 40 points behind or your next competitor is 20 points back. I don't know if it's any easier to motivate. But there should be plenty of self-motivation."