Coming into the 2016-17 season, the question wasn't if the Caps would reach the playoffs, but whether they would be the top team in the conference again. It was merely assumed they would be among the top teams in the conference yet again. Now at the start of 2017, Washington sits fourth in the Metropolitan Division and suddenly the playoffs don't look like a foregone conclusion.
Yes, the Caps are currently the top wild card team and are seven points ahead of Tampa Bay, the first team out of the playoffs. But they still have not cracked the top three of the division despite being one of the healthiest teams in the NHL over the first half of the season.
Washington now hits the grueling part of its schedule with an incredibly tough January slate. At some point, the injuries are going to catch up with them and it may become difficult to keep pace with the rest of the teams in the division given how good the Metropolitan has looked.
The Caps still boast one of the most talented rosters in the league and will likely still make the playoffs, but the point is, you can no longer assume that will be the case. It won't be enough for Washington to coast through the next three months to the end of the regular season. They have work to do just to reach the postseason.