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With a tight race at the top, the Caps have plenty of incentive to finish strong

With a tight race at the top, the Caps have plenty of incentive to finish strong

Last season, the Caps owned a laughable 17-point lead in the Metropolitan Division on this date.

A year later, the Caps’ situation couldn’t be more different.

Barry Trotz and Co. still are in first place as the red-hot Flames come to town. But they share the division perch with the Blue Jackets (100 points apiece), while the Penguins and Rangers lurk just behind with 99 and 93 points, respectively.

And, oh yeah, Washington, Columbus and Pittsburgh are also 1-2-3 in the league standings.

Which leads us to the most discussed topic following Tuesday’s morning skate: Might a tighter race benefit a Caps’ team that coasted to the finish line a year ago simply because it could?

Nicklas Backstrom, for one, anticipates that it will.

“It’s very hard to shut the game on and off however you want,” Backstrom said. “So I think it’s a good opportunity [in] these last 11 games to make sure we play good hockey. We want to be a hard-working team and have all four lines going.”

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Backstrom pointed to the last three games—wins over Minnesota and at Tampa as well as an overtime loss to Nashville—as proof that the Caps have indeed turned things around after scuffling for a bit.  

“I feel like it’s on the way up,” Backstrom said. “Maybe 80, 85-percent. But I think we can play a lot better.”

Another pivotal stretch begins Tuesday against Brian Elliott and the Flames. Calgary has won 12 of its last 13 games and Elliott has won his last 11 starts.

The three-game home stand continues Thursday with a crucial game against Columbus and then wraps up Saturday against lowly Arizona.

The Caps own the second most wins on home ice (28) and considering what’s at stake, this would be a really good time for them to hit their stride. 

In addition to wanting to enter the playoffs on a roll, the Caps would be well-served by finishing first and hosting the eighth seed in the first round. The alternative? Well, it's not so pretty. As things stand now, slipping to second could set up a potential opening-round series against the Blue Jackets or the Penguins.

“You’re aware of it, for sure,” Backstrom said. “It’s going to be a battle to the end, to the last game. We want to keep this first spot [and] make sure we’re playing good hockey these last 11 games.”

Trotz also wants the Caps to finish first, of course. But he was quick to point out that he’s just as interested in seeing his team finish on the upswing.

“Every point right now is critical,” Trotz said. “We did a shootout drill [Monday] because we might need an extra point in the shootout. Going down the stretch we’re going to try to get as many points as we can. If we finish where we want to finish, great. If we finish lower, then that’s going to be the route we have to take. There’s nothing wrong with it; that’s the route we have to take, accept it and go through it.”

As for the importance of sprinting to the line, Trotz said: “You’re more confident. You trust your game more. You know it’s going to get ramped up and you’re closer to the mark than when you’re just easing yourself into it. So I think that will help us prepare for the playoffs, if we put the right focus in all those areas. It’s going to be a great race. It’s going to be a great opportunity for us to get trust back in our game in any areas that we don’t trust it, and get some real, strong emphasis in some areas where we can even be better. It's should be fun”

“Drop the puck,” he added, “let’s go.”

MORE CAPITALS: Winnik calls current playoff format 'the stupidest thing ever'

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4 reasons the Caps beat the Blue Jackets in Game 4

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4 reasons the Caps beat the Blue Jackets in Game 4

The Caps put together their best performance of the series Thursday in a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. The win pulled Washington even with Columbus in the series 2-2.

Here's how the Caps got the big win.

Tom Wilson factors in the offense

Wilson’s hands are good for more than just punching. He proved that again on Thursday as he scored the first goal for the second consecutive game. Chandler Stephenson and John Carlson provided the pressure on Sergei Bobrovsky. With Bobrovsky scrambling in the crease, Evgeny Kuznetsov passed the puck back to Wilson who fired the one-timer past the Columbus netminder. In the first two games of the series, Wilson had no points and no shots. In the last two games, he has two goals and 13 shots on goal.

A great keep in by John Carlson

We saw how dangerous it is when penalty killers fail to clear the puck in Game 1 when the Caps failed to clear in the third period leading to the game-tying power play goal. In Game 4, the roles were reversed. Trying to kill off an Artemi Panarin penalty, Cam Atkinson tried to clear the puck with the backhand. Carlson skillfully corralled the puck out of the air at the blue line to keep it in the zone. The power play was able to reset and T.J. Oshie scored the rebound goal soon after.

Braden Holtby closes the door to finish the second period

After the Caps took the 2-0 lead, the Blue Jackets made a push late in the period to try to pull one back. In the last 10 minutes of the second period, Columbus had 13 shot attempts, five of which were not net. Several of those shots were high-quality opportunities, but Holtby came up with the big saves that the team was not getting earlier in the series. His play ensured the Caps took the 2-0 lead to the locker room.

Alex Ovechkin extends the lead to three

Washington entered the third period up 2-0. In each of the first three games, the Caps held a two-goal lead and allowed the Blue Jackets to battle back and tie the score. Even with a two-goal lead, it still felt at the start of the third that the next goal would decide the game. If Columbus pulled within one and got the crowd back on their side, we have seen what that momentum can do for them. This time, however, Ovechkin struck first. After a board battle behind the net, the puck trickled out to the faceoff circle. Ovechkin grabbed it and quickly snapped the puck past Bobrovsky before anyone could react. The goal gave Washington their first three-goal lead of the series and shut the Blue Jackets’ comeback down before it could begin.

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Tarik's 3 stars: Ovechkin said Caps would even the series, on Thursday, he helped them do it

Tarik's 3 stars: Ovechkin said Caps would even the series, on Thursday, he helped them do it

COLUMBUS — Alex Ovechkin confidently predicted earlier this week that the Caps were going to win twice at Nationwide Arena and take their first round series back to Washington knotted, two games apiece.

And, on Thursday night, that’s exactly what Ovechkin made sure his team did.

No. 8, who was playing in his franchise-record 101st playoff game, scored his third goal of the playoffs early in the final frame and the Caps beat the Blue Jackets 4-1 in Game 4.

Tarik’s Three Stars of Capitals-Blue Jackets Game 4

1. Tom Wilson, Capitals

After a slow (and penalty plagued) start to this series, Wilson has become a force. Yes, he took another minor.

But the good is far outweighing the bad these days. Big Willy recorded a goal, an assist and a team-high seven shots.  

2. Braden Holtby, Capitals

Holtby had his best game in, well, a long time. He stopped 23 shots, including all eight he saw in a contentious second period.

The goal he surrendered was a nearly unstoppable tip-in by Boone Jenner.

3. T.J. Oshie, Capitals

Osh just plays the game so dang hard.

So it should come as no surprise that he delivered in his team’s biggest game of the season to this point. Oshie, of course, scored the game-winning goal on the power play midway through the second period. It was No. 77’s second tally of the series.

Agree? Disagree?

Let us know what you think in the comments.