ARLINGTON –There are 16 games to go and the Capitals have stabilized since a seven-game losing streak in January generated questions about the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Heading into the final month of the regular season, Washington is well positioned to win the Metropolitan Division for the fourth year in a row. That would tie the franchise record set from 2008-2011 when it played in the Southeast Division.
But there’s still work to do. The Capitals entered play Monday just two points ahead of the second-place New York Islanders and all four teams directly behind them in the standings were within six points with a game in hand entering play Monday. It is a good spot, but they remain a long way from winning the Metro again.
“It’s a long season,” forward Tom Wilson said. “Our division has been pretty darn good the last three, four years. You know you have to be on top of your game, you know you have to be playing your best hockey, you know you can’t be inconsistent - or you’ll get left behind.”
Washington has won four games in a row with yet another Metro game upcoming Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers. Twelve of the final 20 games were scheduled against division rivals and the Capitals have already won three of them. They are 12-5-2 in 19 games against Metro opponents overall this season with nine to play.
Wilson noted that games against teams out of playoff contention, like the two recent overtime wins against the New York Rangers and two upcoming games against the New Jersey Devils, can become more difficult this time of year. Those teams are less predictable, they have young players on the ice fighting for roster spots and an unexpected selfishness can creep into their game.
The Flyers fall in between. They’ve been red hot for weeks with a 17-4-2 record since Jan. 10, but are still five points out of contention. The two teams play three times this month. Washington ends the year at home against the Islanders. It also plays home and away against the Carolina Hurricanes, who have made a legitimate playoff push, and a game at Pittsburgh to go with the two against New Jersey.
The Capitals completed the season series with the Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets, who despite going all in with big moves at the NHL deadline are struggling to keep afloat.
Washington has played better defensively in recent games, though there are still issues to work out in that area. New acquisitions Nick Jensen and Carl Hagelin, acquired at the trade deadline, have helped deepen the lineup and improved the penalty kill, though penalties overall remain a concern.
Meanwhile, Braden Holtby has been excellent in goal three games in a row now stopping 63 of 68 shots (.926 save percentage). He’s still searching for long-term consistency as the playoffs approach, but last year at this time Holtby was benched by former coach Barry Trotz for four games and wasn’t even the starter when the postseason began. It’s a better place to be.
The Caps as a team were in a back-and-forth race with the Penguins and desperately trying to hold onto a small margin in the Metro as they traded the lead deep into March. It worked out then, but the division wasn’t secured until three games remained. They are on a similar path.
“We had a ton of work to do then,” Holtby said. “It’s no different this year. We’re still not close to where we want to be to give ourselves a chance to win again…Like last year we have to use every single game and every moment to improve ourselves. Our guys are looking forward to that challenge.”
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
- NHL Power Rankings: Entering the home stretch
- A Win's a Win: Caps sweep Rangers thanks to Ovi’s bizarre shootout goal
- New Life: Jensen, Hagelin adjusting in Washington