ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) - Just three weeks ago, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau sounded almost as if he didn't want to get the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He pointed out how it didn't help his team last year and added: "In the end, I don't care if we're eighth or first."
Now, in the final week of the regular season, the coach has changed his outlook.
"It's just as easy to go for No. 1 as it is to go for No. 5, so you may as well shoot for the top, right?" Boudreau said Monday. "If you're expectations when you start are just to make the top eight - 'If we can sneak into eighth, we can still win' - I think your expectations are too low."
Coachspeak has a way to adapting to its surroundings, especially at crunch time. Having long since climbed their way out of their early season doldrums - they were tied for seventh after an eight-game losing streak in mid-December - the Capitals are finding that No. 1 is a very realistic goal after all. They are tied with the Philadelphia Flyers atop the East, and both teams have three games remaining.
"For a pride thing, you want to be No. 1 in everything," center Brooks Laich said. "That's the way we were born. You want to be No. 1, but we were No. 1 last year and it didn't give us anything. In the grand scheme of things, if you get to a conference finals, and you get to a game seven, it means that (game) is in your building. I guess that's about all it means."
A year ago, in the first round of the playoffs, the Capitals became the first No. 1 seed team to blow a 3-1 series lead against a No. 8 and were eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens. Sportsmen - particularly hockey players - can be a superstitious lot, so the No. 1 spot isn't quite as appealing this time around.
But no one wants to ease up, either.
"What are you going to do? Are you going to try to finish second?" right wing Matt Bradley said. "No, you're going to play your best for the rest of the games and whatever happens, happens."
Still, the primary focus of the Capitals these days is to be in top form for the playoffs. That means getting as healthy as possible and avoiding bad old habits. Boudreau wasn't happy after a back-and-forth 5-4 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday because "it was way too close to looking like last year," when the Capitals were so score-happy that defensive intensity sometimes became optional.
"It's nice to score goals, and we want to score goals," Laich said, "but we don't want to get into 5-4 hockey games like we were last year where we have to score five goals to win. We want to be a team that, as soon as we get a lead, we clamp down and we almost suffocate them, we don't give them anything, any chance to come back in the game. That's how you're going to have to play to win in the playoffs."
Alex Ovechkin seems fine after recently taking a week off to nurse a nagging injury, but now the defense can't make it through 60 minutes without losing a man. Dennis Wideman left Tuesday's game against Carolina with a lower body injury and isn't coming back anytime soon, John Erskine went down Thursday against Columbus with an undisclosed injury, and Tyler Sloan departed early Saturday against Buffalo after getting "his bell rung," according to Boudreau.
Boudreau had some good news Monday. He said both Erskine and Sloan will make the trip to Toronto for Tuesday night's game against the Maple Leafs. The hope is he'll finish that game with the usual contingent of six defensemen.
"We'd just like to get through a game with more than five D," Boudreau said. "It's been taking its toll fatigue-wise, but we're glad that (Sloan) is better and ready to rock."
Not yet ready to travel are Mike Green and Tom Poti. Green is battling concussion symptoms and hasn't played since Feb. 25, but he thinks he might be ready later this week. Poti's nagging groin injury has kept him out since Jan. 12.
"It's the first day that I've actually gone a full practice, and I felt great," Green said Monday. "I need a few more skates to get into game shape, and we'll see."
Boudreau has been studying the standings and the possible matchups, but the logjams are such that it's impossible to project the Capitals' first-round playoff opponent. He knows which team he would rather play, but he's not about to give that away.
"I think the combinations that can still happen are a crazy number that I can't figure out, or don't have time to try," Boudreau said. "It's not like you're sitting there saying, 'Geez, I want to play this team, I want to play that team, and where we are here is where we want to be.' You could end up in first and play the team you least want to play, or you can end up in third and play the team you least want to play."
Thus the push to win the final three games and go for first place.
"You've got to play them all," the coach said, "you may as well try to win every one."