NEWARK, N.J. -- How important is winning the Eastern Conference to the Washington Capitals?
It's a fair question, particularly since the Capitals finished tops in the Southeast Division and among the top three in the East the past three seasons only to be relegated to postseason heartache each time. The club was eliminated in the conference quarterfinals in 2008 and '10 and dropped a thrilling seven-game series to Pittsburgh in the conference semifinals in 2009.
Based on the team's performance of late -- 10 victories in 11 games -- you'd assume winning the conference is a priority.
"Really, it's not that important," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said a few days before his team travelled to Philadelphia to play the Flyers for first place in the East.
"What is important is that you're playing your best hockey when the playoffs begin," he said. "It's always nice to start playing your best going into the tournament but, at the same time, playing your best in the tournament is what counts because no one remembers anything else. No one remembers that you won the Presidents' Trophy. They only remember what happens in the playoffs, so that to me, that's the important thing."
Certainly, the Capitals wouldn't dismiss defending the Presidents' Trophy they won this past season with 54 wins and 120 points. But, let's face it, the gaudy record did little to help their cause in a seven-game, first-round ouster against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens this past spring.
To some, that top seed results in a target on your back.
Evidently, the coach isn't alone in his opinion of Eastern Conference supremacy.
"I think it's important to be in top four somewhere and gain home ice," Capitals right wing Mike Knuble told NHL.com. "I don't know if the statistics being at home prove it or not, but it's always a better feeling playing important games at home. But, I think it's not always great to come out ahead and then limp your way through the last 10 games because you're comfortable playing .500 hockey and still being able to hold on to your spot.
"I enjoy being in a race a little bit where things change a lot. I think it keeps you sharper as a group."
Actually, the Capitals have undergone some serious changes since late December. Center Brooks Laich points to a 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers on Dec. 12 that forced the coaching staff to rethink its strategy.
"The main change is our defensive play," Laich told NHL.com. "Our whole game right now stems from a solid defensive-zone coverage and solid neutral-zone (play). We don't give up a lot of shots and we don't want to give up many chances and that makes us very tough to play against."
For the Caps, that type of play has held true to form both at home (22-8-7) and on the road (20-13-3) this season. The team's 3-0 victory against the New Jersey Devils on Friday was the 20th road win of the season, marking the fourth-straight time the club has reached that mark.
The Capitals have allowed just 17 goals in their recent 10-1 surge, holding the opposition to two goals or fewer in nine of the past 11 and 11 of the past 14. The turnaround has lowered Washington's goals-against average to 2.34, which is third-lowest in the NHL. The club hasn't finished in the top 12 in the League in goals against since finishing fourth in 1999-00.
"It's a complete 180 from what we did last year," Laich said. "Last year, we were the high-scoring team. We were the run-and-gun team -- we were going to outscore you. If you scored five, we were going to score six. Now, there's more emphasis on being a tough team to play against. Teams are starting to get frustrated when they play us because they don't get too many chances. We're solid in our defensive zone and it's a credit to the coaching staff for doing a great job and credit to the players for buying in.
"We understand the importance of defensive hockey but, that being said, it's not going to take anything away from our offense because we'll be in position to get the puck back and go on attack."
The Capitals were first in the League with a 3.83 goals-per game average last year; they are No. 20 at this stage in the season (2.67). On the heels of an eight-game losing streak on Dec. 19, Washington was averaging 2.97 goals and allowing 2.82.
"Moving forward with our group, I just feel like we're way more playoff ready than we were at this point last year," Knuble said. "We don't want to be like the team made of smoke and mirrors during the regular season that puts on a good show with no substance behind it in the end. Now, I feel like the show isn't quite as pretty, but there's a lot more behind it."
Knuble, who is in his second season with the Caps, is currently third on the team with 19 goals.
"Some committed right away and some will drink whatever the coach is selling -- others will take a while to see if it's really going to work," Knuble said. "But the proof is in the win-loss record and the goals-against average. Winning 10 of the last 11 really sells a lot to the guys in the room."
So how will Boudreau know if his team is in the right frame of mind heading into the postseason when he's actually seen this scenario played out the three previous campaigns?
"It's not something I could put into words but I'll know if we're playing well," he said. "Just from watching our group over long periods of time, you know if they're doing the things right or playing lazy or playing with energy -- we'll be able to tell. Over the last 11 games, we've started to play the way we're capable of playing.
"I like that they come to play, they care and want to win. All of those things will hopefully add into some success this year."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale