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.”
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.”