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Taking a Breather

Over the next four days, the Capitals will take to the road and attempt to match an NHL record set 16 years ago by winning 17 straight games - a daunting task but one which this team is fully equipped to complete.

At the same time, these three games will count down the final days before the season comes to a sudden, screeching halt.

When the NHL breaks for the Olympics next week, it will send some of its best and brightest to Vancouver while scattering the remainder of the League to all parts of the world for a mandatory vacation. For some teams this break is probably something of a blessing - a time to heal wounded bodies, weary minds, a time to refuel and refocus for the final push.

But for a team like the Capitals, a team riding a wave of momentum the likes of which has never been seen by their fans, such a break seems to come at the worst possible time. It's incited hand-wringing from pundits and fans alike, while those outside CapsNation eagerly await the almost certain downfall that will follow - to them, this will clearly be another case of a team peaking too soon.

And yet few have considered the fact that this break could actually be something of a blessing for the hottest team in the League, as well.

For those Caps who will scatter to warmer climes or simply return home to spend time with family over the next two weeks, it's a chance to indulge in some league-mandated rest like everyone else. Stars are stars, but it's the role-players who make the team what it is and our role-players could use some R&R.

Look at our workhorses - how much more productive will someone like Brooks Laich be when he gets a chance to heal from all of the war wounds he is no doubt silently playing through? Look at our defense - a healthy Tom Poti, Brian Pothier or Mike Green is preferable to a version that is literally limping toward spring, isn't it? All of our goaltenders have battled injury, and at least one of them - the eldest of the trio - will get to rest up for what could be the biggest postseason of his career.

As for the lucky few off to play for their country, I'm not worried. The threat of injury exists around every player regardless of where he plays - and while physical play certainly exists at the Olympics, it's rarely at the same level of a full-scale NHL game. The threat of mental exhaustion is a bigger concern and even that seems like a low risk possibility. For example, should Alex Ovechkin help Russia earn the gold medal, it injects even more of the taste for winning into someone already so driven by it; should Russia falter, we get back a captain who is twice as determined as before to capture the highest prize.

It just seems there is no room for mental or physical exhaustion on a team led by one so inexhaustible.

But beyond the talk of potential injury or the much-needed rest for the weary, it's the concern over loss of momentum that has me puzzled. Hockey is unpredictable by nature; it comes in waves, in cycles, teams getting hot at different times and surging through the standings. People talk of momentum and hot streaks and the like with such reverence, as if they control every aspect of the game - but momentum can shift so fast, hot streaks can become ice cold in the blink of an eye. Ultimately what you're left with is the good teams on top where they should be, hot and cold streaks aside.

I point this out because at some point during this amazing run it stopped feeling like the Caps were simply "riding a hot streak" and started to feel like they were simply finding their groove - finding ways to win, the way good teams do. 

Whether they complete the historic feat and coast into the break on a 17-game winning streak or not is irrelevant when talking about the big picture. This team is starting to find their groove, dominating games they should dominate and winning games that maybe they shouldn't win, but rarely to the extremes of either one. They're learning how to play for each other rather than simply alongside each other, a lesson that will take them much further than any win streak can. 

In short they're becoming a good team - a very good team. And that's not something that will be halted just because the season is.