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Capitals not paying attention to winning streak

Washington remains loose despite ascent to top of NHL standings

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Psst! Have you seen the standings?

The Washington Capitals are in first place.

Yes, first place. Again.

(Shhhh!)

Don't say it too loudly. 

The Capitals have been trying to go to about their business quietly this season, but here they are at the top of the NHL standings again after a 5-0 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers at Verizon Center on Sunday.

Washington has won nine in a row and is 16-2-2 in its past 20 games. The Capitals are 29-9-5 for 63 points, one more than the Columbus Blue Jackets (who have a game in hand). Normally, that would be something to feel pretty good about. But the Capitals say they're not paying much attention to the standings or how many games they've won in a row.

"We would like to win every game and right now we're playing good hockey, but we're not thinking about a winning streak," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "We're just trying to get ready for next game and see how it goes."

Video: PHI@WSH: Williams, Niskanen each score twice in 3rd

Up next is another tough Metropolitan Division game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports, ROOT, NHL.TV). 

After the Capitals defeated the Penguins 5-2 on Wednesday at Verizon Center to end Pittsburgh's five-game winning streak, a game that came six days after a 5-0 victory that snapped the Blue-Jackets' 16-game winning streak, Backstrom said, half tongue-in-cheek, "We're just trying to play our game quietly. So don't write anything about it."

When asked Sunday if it was OK to talk about the Capitals being in first place now, Backstrom quickly answered, "No."

Then, he smiled and said, "Nah, I'm just kidding. You guys talk about whatever you want."

In general, teams pay less attention to the standings when they are playing well, and no one is playing better than the Capitals right now. They've outscored their opponents 40-11 during the nine-game streak.

In six games since a 6-5 overtime victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 3, the Capitals have outscored opponents 26-3 with four shutouts and no even-strength goals against. In addition to ending the Penguins and the Blue Jackets' winning streaks, the Capitals also defeated the Montreal Canadiens, who are first in the Atlantic Division, 4-1 on Monday and the Chicago Blackhawks, who are tied for first place in the Western Conference, 6-0 on Friday.

The win Sunday came against the struggling Flyers, who are 3-8-3 in their past 14 games following a 10-game winning streak. The Capitals appeared disinterested at times in the first two periods, getting outshot 17-10 but still led 1-0 because backup Philipp Grubauer was sharp and Andre Burakovsky capitalized on a Michael Del Zotto turnover for a power-play goal.

They flipped the switch at the start of the third period and scored four times in the opening 6:36, getting two goals apiece from right wing Justin Williams and defenseman Matt Niskanen, to put the game away.

"I think guys are enjoying coming to the rink right now," Niskanen said. "We're kind of in this every-other-day play a game type schedule right now, and I think that's where we play our best."

Although Niskanen acknowledged he looks at the standings, "just about every day I come to the rink," he seems to be in the minority. Of being in first place in the League standings, Capitals coach Barry Trotz said, "We haven't even talked about anything like that.

"All we've done is said, 'Let's make sure we're playing good hockey right now and build our game.' Right now, we've played more consistent than probably earlier in the season, which is all we wanted."

Video: PHI@WSH: Burakovsky makes Flyers pay for a turnover

The Capitals know from experience that being in first place at this stage of the season doesn't mean a lot. They were 33-7-3 through their first 43 games last season and cruised through much of the second half on the way to winning the Presidents' Trophy. But when the Stanley Cup Playoffs began, they weren't able to find their best game and lost to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round in six games. So it's understandable the Capitals appear to have no interest in being in the Presidents' Trophy conversation this season.

They've done a pretty good job of laying low, being overshadowed in the highly-competitive Metropolitan Division while the Blue Jackets, Penguins and New York Rangers played some impressive hockey. But suddenly the Blue Jackets have lost four of six, the Penguins have lost three in a row and the Rangers have lost two in a row while the Capitals have kept winning.

That puts them in first place whether they want to be or not.

"I don't think we should start playing like crap just because we're in first," Niskanen said. "We'll just try to play as well as we can all of the time, so we have good habits and try to build for the right time of year."

The main difference between this season and last is the Capitals are not in a position where they can get comfortable. As the Blue Jackets, Penguins and Rangers have experienced recently, you can drop from first to fourth in the Metropolitan with a bad week or two.

For that reason, the Capitals will need to keep their foot on the gas through the end of the regular season and hope they are playing their best when the games matter most in April and, with some luck, May and June.

"I don't think you can try to time it, time how you're playing or anything like that," Niskanen said. "You just go as hard as you can and see where it takes you."

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