-- A few days before the NHL took leave for the Winter Olympics, there was no team in the League hotter than the Washington Capitals
Owners of the third-longest winning streak in NHL history, the Capitals were three games shy of a League-wide vacation and three victories short of tying the record. It seemed like a terrible time to have a 17-day break -- but then the Caps dropped their last three contests before dispersing.
"It would have been nice to still have that streak going, but at the same time I think the streak took a lot out of us both mentally and physically," defenseman Tom Poti
said. "It is kind of nice to have a break and recuperate."
As the non-Olympians have returned to practice, Washington has new goals to focus on over the final 20 games of the regular season. Some are tangible, such as securing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time in franchise history.
"I think we've been giving up too many goals. We need to concentrate more on our team defense and less turnovers at both blue lines. We need to get the puck in more and not try to make so many fancy plays. We need to peak at the right time." -- Tom Poti
The Capitals have a 13-point lead in the Eastern Conference, so it would take a pretty remarkable slide for Washington to not be the top seed. However, gaining home-ice advantage for a potential run to the Stanley Cup Final remains in doubt. Western leader San Jose trails by only one point, while Chicago is three behind Washington with a game in hand.
"It matters. It is really not a secret -- we've made it know from Day 1 that we want to be the best team in the League," center Brendan Morrison
said. "That starts with winning your division, winning the conference and winning the League overall. Ultimately maybe none of that matters if you don't have playoff success, but those are stepping stones to put you in the right direction."
Other goals will not necessarily be defined by wins and losses. Last season the Capitals raced to a comfortable advantage in the Southeast Division, but the last weeks of the regular season were marked by inconsistent performance.
While the players spoke of trying to keep the same level of desperation, it just wasn't there. It was something that may have cost them once the postseason began.
"We were still winning games, but it wasn't playoff-type hockey," goaltender Jose Theodore
said. "There was a lot of games where we would be up 4-1 and they'd come back in the third, or it was 6-4 or 5-3 -- it just wasn't playoff hockey. It was easy to create bad habits. This year what I like is we're more mature and experienced and I'm sure we're all going to learn from that experience."
A tougher schedule to close the season also should benefit the Capitals.
Twelve of Washington's final 13 regular-season contests last season were against teams that missed the postseason. Six of the team's final 10 games this season are against teams currently among the top eight in their respective conferences, and two more are against the Atlanta Thrashers
-- a team just two points out of the eighth spot.
Despite boasting the League's best record, there are improvements to be made before the Capitals can be considered playoff ready. Even at the end of the 14-game winning streak, team defense was a big issue -- the Capitals were yielding far too many shots on net and relying on goaltenders Theodore and Michal Neuvirth
to bail them out.
"I think we've been giving up too many goals," Poti said. "We need to concentrate more on our team defense and less turnovers at both blue lines. We need to get the puck in more and not try to make so many fancy plays. We need to peak at the right time."
One major personnel decision could linger during the next 20 games as well -- who is Washington's starting goaltender for Game 1 of the first round? If general manager George McPhee
does not trade for a goalie, there are three in-house candidates.
Theodore has been the No. 1 guy for most of the season, but he was last season, and lost that title after one bad game in the first round against the Rangers. Semyon Varlamov
started the next 13 postseason games and has great numbers this season, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy.
Neuvirth also has been a standout at times. Both he and Varlamov are injured right now, but both are close to returning. Not only do McPhee and coach Bruce Boudreau
have to decide on a go-to guy for the postseason, they have to formulate a plan to divide the workload for the 20 games between now and then.
Either Varlamov or Neuvirth will be sent to Hershey of the American Hockey League before Washington's first game back, Wednesday in Buffalo. Boudreau hinted it might be Varlamov so he can work his way into game shape -- the Russian netminder has played one NHL game and just three in all since early December.
As for who starts once the postseason begins, that remains to be determined.
"I don't know," Boudreau said. "(Theodore) has been playing really great of late and when (Varlamov) was healthy he was playing good and when (Neuvirth) was healthy he was playing good, so it is a tough call. I'm glad we don't have to make that call in the next day or two."