The Washington Capitals have loftier goals than simply trying to win the Southeast, which this season has proven to be the weakest of the NHL's six divisions.
The resurgent Caps feel they've got a shot at more than that. "Obviously Ottawa and Montreal might be a little out of reach but that's our goal - to chase down those teams," veteran Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "And come April if we fall just short, then so be it. But we're not just satisfied with being first in the Southeast, we want to continue to climb the point ladder in our conference."
Washington, Carolina, Atlanta and Florida were all separated by only two points before the Hurricanes took the ice Tuesday night and the Tampa Bay Lightning weren't that far behind. It's a race that'll go down to the wire to be sure, and the Caps (27-25-5) like their chances.
They've gone 21-11-4 under new head coach Bruce Boudreau. Their young core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and blue-liner Mike Green is leading the way along with the old goat Kolzig in goal.
"The guys are just starting to really believe that we're a good hockey team," said Kolzig. "It took a little while. After so many years of losing, especially with young guys, you have to learn how to win."
And the fans have noticed. While the Caps remain 27th in the league with an average home attendance of 14,431, they're up 19 per cent in the New Year to 16,033 and over the last three games drew 17,205, 18,204 and 17,873.
"There's no question there's more interest in the hockey team. There is a buzz," said Kolzig. "Going into overtime on Sunday (a win over the Rangers), our fans expected us to win. It's terrific. We're getting more media coverage. And realistically, and I've said this all along not in a negative way, but D.C. is a bandwagon city. Unless you're the Redskins, you need to win for them to come out.
"That's what we're doing now and we're seeing more and more people coming to the games."
They're not just winning, but they're doing it with style.
"We're playing an exciting brand of hockey," said Kolzig. "It's not a stifling defensive game. It's risk-reward at both ends of the ice. For the goalie, it can sometimes not be fun, when you're giving up four, five or six goals a game, but the bottom line is winning. And it doesn't matter if it's 2-1 or 8-6. It's winning. And we're finding different ways of doing it every night."
Ovechkin has been sensational. His league-leading 47 goals and 76 points has propelled the Caps to new heights.
He's played especially well since signing his monster US$124-million, 13-year contract last month.
"Generally the trend is when you sign the big contract like that there's a bit of a falloff but he's done the exact opposite," said Kolzig. "He's actually taken his game to a new level. He just feels like there's more responsibility on his part and he's really starting to take over a leadership role in our dressing room."
For Kolzig, who has endured the long rebuilding program, the winning has made it that much more fun to come to the rink every day.
"Any time you're successful it makes your job that much more enjoyable," said Kolzig. "We're a team that's finally getting some respect around the league. I think we're a team that if we make the playoffs we can do some damage - especially in the East. We're 4-0 against Ottawa this season, 2-2 against Montreal, 2-2 against Philly, those are three top teams in our conference.
"So we know can play with the big teams. We, in fact, consider ourselves one of those teams now. Even though we're still battling for a playoff spot, we feel we're playing better than our position indicates."
All of which makes Kolzig's decision two years ago to sign an extension instead of moving on to a contender that much sweeter. The 37-year-old had faith in GM George McPhee and his ability to finish off the rebuilding job in time for the veteran goalie to still be part of it.
"I've always had that belief in this team, just seeing the players coming up," said Kolzig. "It was unfortunate that a good friend of mine, (former coach) Glen Hanlon, lost his job at the beginning of the year. But we're seeing now that talent level really coming through and our team is really starting to come together and play for each other. It definitely solidifies my decision from a couple of years ago."
Kolzig, earning $5.45 million this season, is slated for unrestricted free agency July 1. Will he be sticking with the only NHL team he's every played for?
"I'm not looking too far past this season," said Kolzig. "I'm just looking at playing well and trying to go as far as we can and we'll just see what happens in the summertime. I'm not too overly concerned with that kind of stuff."