For all of the struggles of the Washington Capitals in the middle third of this season, one of the positives that may have come from it was meaningful games in March.
In each of the past two seasons the Capitals have raced out to a huge advantage in the Southeast Division, and last season in the entire Eastern Conference. The result was weeks left on the schedule with little to play for. As much as they tried to talk about habits and staying focused, it was impossible to not let human nature keep the club from being sharp some nights.
"Last year was one of those years where we really didn't have any adversity all season," Matt Bradley said. "It is enjoyable to play those kinds of seasons, but in the end having a season where we had some ups and downs will help us in the long run. You have to deal with that adversity in the regular season and not when it comes up in the playoffs for the first time."
The Capitals scuffled in December and at times once the calendar turned to 2011, but they have been one of the hottest teams in the League of late. Washington went 16-3-1 in the final 20 games of the regular season, and that includes a loss on the last day of the season when the top spot in the Eastern Conference had been secured.
Players have mentioned on several occasions this season the goal was not to peak in February -- like the Capitals did last year with a 14-game winning streak. It is fair to say they're playing well at the right time as the postseason approaches.
"I like our game and where it is at right now," Brooks Laich said. "I like our two-way game. Last year we obviously scored a lot of goals, but we didn't frustrate teams when we didn't have the puck. We have that ability this year."
Added Alex Ovechkin: "Yeah, you see the stats. We know we [were] in a slump but after that we've been coming back and again we're in first place. Regular year and playoffs are two different seasons, so right now it is a new season started."
While the Capitals are the No. 1 seed in the East for a second straight season, they hope it will be different this time around. Washington captured the Presidents' Trophy last season and was considered a big favorite, but the Capitals crashed out in the first round with three straight losses to Montreal after building a 3-1 lead in the series.
This year the Capitals are far from the position of favorite in the East, even if their record suggests otherwise. Whether or not the proper lessons have been learned remains to be determined, starting Wednesday night in Game 1 against the eighth-seeded New York Rangers at Verizon Center.
"It is a little bit different than last year," Mike Knuble said. "I think we were a little bit higher on our horse, a little cockier. It kind of felt like we were sort of invincible and a lot of guys found out that you're not. You have to do things better. Every day you have to do things better. We brought in a couple of veteran guys at the trade deadline and they've said the same message. It is good for the young players to hear and that's how you have to win the in playoffs."
Added coach Bruce Boudreau: "I think everything had come so easy [last year]. We weren't pushed I don't think as a unit too hard, and this year we've been pushed really hard. And yet we're playing a team that's kicked our butt three times, so we know we're not walking into a cakewalk -- it's going to be a battle."