When you’ve clinched a playoff berth with 13 games to go in the regular season and no team in the NHL is within 14 points of you, well, motivation could be in short supply.
But only if you allow it.
“It’s a long road to travel to get where we want to be,” Capitals right wing and three-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams said. “I think that’s the feeling in this dressing room. It’s ho-hum. Yes, it’s been a great season so far, but we have much bigger goals and bigger aspirations. We expect to be playing for the Stanley Cup.”
Freeze frame those last nine words.
But before the Capitals get can get to June, there are 13 relatively meaningless games to navigate, beginning with Friday night’s visit by the Nashville Predators, who currently hold the first wild card spot in the Western Conference standings.
“Clinching doesn’t really mean anything. It’s the first step,” said Capitals left wing Jason Chimera, who skated on a third line with Williams and Marcus Johansson on Thursday at Kettler. “We have to be playing good going into the playoffs. We have a lot to work on, a lot to improve on.
“Games will only get ramped up from here. A lot of teams are fighting for their lives and trying to fight to get in, so you can’t wade into games. You’ve got to go hard and go after teams.”
If the regular season ended today, the top-seeded Caps would be facing the eighth-seeded Flyers in the first round of the playoffs. The Flyers have won eight of their last 10 games to climb one point ahead of the Red Wings and into the second wild card spot, two points behind the Penguins.
The Flyers and Penguins have 13 games remaining, while the Red Wings, who have been to the Stanley Cup playoffs 24 straight seasons, have 12.
“We were playing Detroit (in Round 1) the other day and a couple days before that we were playing Pittsburgh,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “Now, if it started today we’re playing Philadelphia.
“You have to start thinking about the possibilities and start your preparation if you haven’t already. It could be three different teams, and a week from now it might be four different teams. It’s exciting.”
Trotz said he has no plans of resting his players and spent Thursday speaking with some of his leaders – he had a long on-ice chat with Alex Ovechkin – about keeping their collective foot on the gas pedal.
“If our players (think) they're going to just float through this part (of the season) then they're absolutely wrong,” Trotz said, “and setting themselves up to fail.”
Caps center Jay Beagle, who was promoted from the fourth line to the top line on Tuesday and skated there again on Thursday, said he sees no signs of complacency in the Caps.
“We’re preparing for the playoffs,” he said. “Our goal all year has been to make it to the playoffs. It’s the first step, but it’s not the end goal. It’s pretty easy to stay motivated. Thirteen games isn’t that many. If you have a little lull or let up a little bit that’s how you go into the playoff. You want to make sure you’re going in in top form.”
Trotz said he believes the Capitals are now out of the little rut they experienced from Feb. 24 to March 12 when they lost five of 10 games.
“I think we went through a tough phase when the dog days kicked in and that light at the end of the tunnel was not to be seen,” Trotz said. “I think that light at the end of the tunnel is being seen.
“Usually when those cherry blossoms come out the light is around the corner. I woke up this morning and there was lots of cherry blossoms in the back of my house -- a sign of spring.”