By this point in each of the past two seasons the team had a comfortable lead in the division and used games in January to put the division title away with several weeks left before the postseason.
However, the circumstances Tuesday when the Tampa Bay Lightning come to Verizon Center are vastly different. The Lightning and the Capitals are tied atop the Southeast with 51 points and Tampa Bay has a game in hand.
"It is a huge game and a huge two weeks," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We play Florida twice and these guys twice. It is good to have these kind of games."
Added Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier: "Anytime you play Washington, it is a big game. They're a good team, obviously. They won our conference last year and we are fighting with them for our division. It is a real big game, but it is also our (40th) game of the year and every game we play is going to be (big) from now on."
"Last year we could look at it and be like, 'Oh, a game here and a game there doesn't really matter.' We're in a playoff race now and we want to make sure we're atop our division and those things go hand in hand. I think it is good for us and it enforces that we need to come to play every night to win games."
-- David Steckel
Both teams enter this game on quite a roll. The Capitals have won three in a row and five of six since an eight-game winless skid that dropped them from first in the conference to third in their division. Tampa Bay has won back-to-back games against other top-eight Eastern Conference teams in Montreal and the Rangers and has collected wins in eight of the past 10 contests.
"I think it is better for us team-wise and mentality-wise," Washington center David Steckel said. "Last year we could look at it and be like, 'Oh, a game here and a game there doesn't really matter.' We're in a playoff race now and we want to make sure we're atop our division and those things go hand in hand. I think it is good for us and it enforces that we need to come to play every night to win games."
Washington has dominated Tampa Bay in recent seasons and the trend has continued at the beginning into 2010-11. The Capitals have won the first two meetings by a 12-3 combined margin. A 6-0 victory at Verizon Center on Nov. 26 possibly was the most complete game the Capitals have played with Boudreau as the team's coach.
"I don't believe in those words -- sending a message," Boudreau said. "We want to be the best and right now to be the best you have to beat Tampa, obviously. It is not just Tampa -- our whole division isn't losing. Just to keep up with the Joneses you have to keep winning."
It will be the first game for Washington since the Capitals defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. The team took Sunday off after spending the night in Pittsburgh and was back at practice Monday.
Defenseman Tom Poti is expected to be back in the lineup, so the Capitals will have their top six defensemen available for only the second time since Scott Hannan was acquired from Colorado on Nov. 30. Jeff Schultz broke a finger the only other game they've all played together.
Boudreau said if the Capitals were playing any of the other 28 teams besides the Lightning (and maybe the Philadelphia Flyers), there could be reason for a letdown, but not with first place on the line and the Lightning in town.
"There shouldn't be any emotional drainage. This is too big of a game," Boudreau said. "The other game was on a bigger stage and all, but this is too important to us."
Added Steckel: "I think if you look at any team that has played in an outdoor game and such a big spectacle -- two days later they're probably not going to have their best game. That's just how nature works, but the fact that it is a big division game that we need two points from helps. We want to make sure we're not looking up at them for the rest of the season."