In the opinion of Capitals coach Barry Trotz, it is a blessing to clinch the Metropolitan Division title and the top seed in the Eastern Conference with 10 games remaining in the regular season. But it is also a curse.
“The blessing of where we are is that we’ve got room (a 19-point lead in the division) and we can try things,” Trotz said following the Caps’ 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night. “The curse of it is where we are and that’s what we’re battling a little bit.
“You can’t manufacture urgency. You can try to manufacture some focus points, but you can’t manufacture urgency. You sort of have to get your back against the wall to be urgent and we haven’t had that for a long time, for two months now.”
Actually, it’s been more than three months since the Capitals took the Metropolitan Division lead and never looked back. The Caps overtook the Rangers for first place in the division back on Dec. 8. Back then the Caps had a 19-5-2 record for 40 points. The Rangers were 18-7-3 for 39 points.
Since then the Caps have gone 33-10-3 while the Rangers have gone 23-17-5.
“We’ve had a heck of a year,” Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen told Monumental Sports Network. “We’ve really been racking up the wins and guys should be proud of that. That’s nothing to roll your eyes at.
“We’re happy to be in this position, but at the same time we know we have a lot of work to do yet and we have to play better if we’re going to want to keep having that success.”
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin agreed.
“It’s huge,” Ovechkin said when asked about clinching the top seed in the East, which gives the Caps home ice through the first three rounds of the playoffs. “I think we deserve to clinch it with how we played all year.
“Now with 10 games we need to play more simple and be ready for the playoffs. The first period we played great, score three goals and after that we stopped playing.”
The Caps are hoping Tuesday night’s game in Ottawa does not turn out to be a microcosm of their season – starting strong and finishing weak. The Caps had one of their better first periods of the season, scoring three goals on eight first-period shots.
“We’ve talked enough about our (poor) starts lately and it was good to see that everybody had their legs going,” Niskanen said. “We were physically and mentally engaged and went after them. It was nice to get rewarded, too.”
Late in the first period a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty was followed by what Trotz called an unnecessary hooking penalty to Daniel Winnik and although the Senators did not score on the power play, they gained the momentum needed to outplay the Caps in the final 40 minutes, outshooting them 19-14 and drawing within a goal before T.J. Oshie finished them off with an empty-netter.
“In the second we played loose and tried to play fancy hockey,” Ovechkin said. “The first period shows that if we put the puck deep and play hard (offense) happens.”
To a man, the Caps agree that if they want to go into the playoffs with any kind of momentum they’ll need to use the final 10 games of the regular season to replace bad habits with good ones.
“We haven’t played as well as we needed to,” Trotz said. “We’ve got some work to do, no question. But we haven’t played a real meaningful game for a while. I think the biggest thing is being able to sustain things. We can do things at a very high level, but to sustain that you need that urgency and we haven’t had that.”
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