When a team takes an 18-point lead in their division, they won't play very many meaningful games down the stretch of the regular season. That won't be the case for the Capitals on Tuesday night, however, when they face the Carolina Hurricanes.
With a win Tuesday, the Caps will clinch a spot in the playoffs. While a playoff berth has been all but a forgone conclusion for much of the season, for a Caps team in desperate need of a spark to jump-start them out of their current funk, Tuesday's game could be just the sort of motivation the team needs.
"It's nice to have that opportunity to clinch this early," Karl Alzner said. "I didn't realize we were that close. ... We haven't been that great lately so I think this will maybe kind of put us over the hump hopefully and get us geared up towards the final push and get our game on track."
While clinching a playoff berth would be nice, the main goal for this team right now is to get back on track. The Caps come into Tuesday's contest having lost two in a row and five of their last 10. That's not the kind of stretch we have come to expect from an otherwise dominant season.
Should the Caps lose on Tuesday, they will still make the playoffs, but it would be another defeat in a stretch in which the losses are beginning to pile up.
"Obviously clinching is important, but it's more important just to be playing your best going into the playoffs," Jay Beagle said. For a team with a checkered playoff history, going into the postseason cold is not an ideal way to start.
Beagle's comments echo those of head coach Barry Trotz who remains focused on just getting his team back to the level they were playing at earlier in the season.
"We need to win a hockey game. We've lost our last two, one in overtime and then obviously one in San Jose, so we need to get a win and get on track here."
With only 14 games remaining in the regular season including Tuesday's against Carolina, you can expect Trotz to emphasize the importance of each game as he tries to keep the team from looking ahead at what will no doubt be a critical postseason for the franchise.
"The playoffs are going to sneak up on us fairly quickly," Trotz said. "I know guys are looking forward to that. I'm sure we'll get there, but at the same time we have to focus on the task at hand. The task at hand is the Hurricanes tonight and we can't get too far ahead of ourselves
"We gotta just rectify what we need to do in our game and play the way we need to play."
Lines at morning skate:
Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Jay Beagle
Andre Burakovsky - Evgeny Kuznetsov - T.J. Oshie
Jason Chimera - Marcus Johansson - Justin Williams
Daniel Winnik - Mike Richards - Tom Wilson
Extras: Michael Latta, Stanislav Galiev
Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Dmitry Orlov
Nate Schmidt - Taylor Chorney
Extra: Mike Weber
Braden Holtby (starting), Philipp Grubauer
MORE CAPITALS: Looking for a spark, Trotz shuffles lines