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Mood of Capitals, Penguins not reflected in record

Washington, Pittsburgh each still striving to raise play to higher level

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A little more than a month into the season, the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins are in roughly the same place.

Each is 10-4-2, which is more than respectable, but neither is satisfied with how it has played through the first 16 games.

The Capitals were feeling better about themselves after defeating the Penguins 7-1 at Verizon Center on Wednesday. It was a much-needed victory and by a wide margin their most complete performance, a sharp contrast to a four-game stretch of uninspiring play when they went 1-2-1 and scored five goals.

Playing a rival that knocked them out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season brought out the best in the Capitals, but producing that effort consistently remains their biggest challenge in this young season.

"We have certain expectations and we've just got to get the joy back in our game a little bit," coach Barry Trotz said. "We know we can play more consistent but at the same time understanding we've got to keep building our game in certain areas. We'll try to take those areas and build a little bit and, hopefully, peak at the right time and see what happens if we make the playoffs."

Video: PIT@WSH: Ovechkin speeds in, tallies on a breakaway

After winning the Presidents' Trophy and falling short in the playoffs again last season, the Capitals are well aware that whatever success they have in the regular season will be viewed with skepticism. But with 66 regular-season games ahead of them, they have to fight through the feeling that they won't be able to prove anything until the postseason begins.

"We're in a good spot in the standings, but at the same time, I feel like we haven't played our best, yet," center Nicklas Backstrom said after matching his NHL career high with five points (two goals, three assists). "Maybe it was a little bit of a lack of producing from our top players, and maybe we can get a little bit going here and it will give us a little confidence from this win."

It was easy to get up to play the Penguins, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, but that urgency wasn't there in a 5-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday. Although their effort was better in a 2-1 overtime loss at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, the Capitals knew they weren't playing near their top level.

"One of the tougher things about having such a successful regular season last year with basically the same group is trying to get that urgency up a little more," Washington goaltender Braden Holtby said. "The last two games, I think, really got us, woke us up in some areas. It's more fun when we play like this."

The Penguins had been on a 7-1-1 roll but, like the Capitals, still were searching for consistency and their best game while trying to avoid the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. They didn't find it Wednesday.

Video: PIT@WSH: Backstrom's wrister adds to Capitals' lead

Phil Kessel scored with 3:32 remaining to prevent the lopsided loss from being a shutout, but there wasn't much else for the Penguins to feel good about.

"These games are humbling," coach Mike Sullivan said. "We were embarrassed out there, all of us, and it's humbling when you go through it. My hope is that we learn from it and make sure that it doesn't happen again."

Prior to this season, Sullivan sat down with his staff to discuss whatever potential pitfalls the Penguins might face in their bid to become the first Stanley Cup champion to repeat since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. The last defending champion to even reach the Stanley Cup Final was the 2008-09 Red Wings, who lost to the Penguins in seven games, so they know it's not easy to make it that far and win it all again.

Maintaining focus through the long regular season is among the toughest tests.

"Some things you can predict, some things you can't, but certainly as a coaching staff we've had discussions about potential challenges here early in the season and how we might be able to be proactive to move our team through it," Sullivan said.

Video: PIT@WSH: Kessel reaches to sweep in loose puck

At some point, the Penguins' long playoff run last season might catch up to them physically or mentally. Each game is a measuring stick for their opponent, so any drop-off in intensity can cost them.

The Penguins received a painful reminder of that from the Capitals.

"There's challenges that come with playing late into last year, but the belief and trust in what we need to do and understanding our roles, that part of it is there," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "When you talk about teams that kind of go through that, sometimes it's fatigue. Other times, it's maybe your mindset. … It's so tight, you can't take your foot off the gas."

When the season began, it appeared a good bet that the Capitals and Penguins would run into each other again in the playoffs. That still might happen, but right now the Montreal Canadiens (13-2-2) and New York Rangers (13-4-0) are the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.

Video: PIT@WSH: Oshie pushes in rebound for second of game

Within the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins and Capitals are being challenged by the Rangers, New Jersey Devils (9-3-3) and surprising Blue Jackets (8-4-2).

Being 10-4-2 is good by most standards, but the Capitals and the Penguins are having trouble feeling good about themselves so far.

"This is going to be a struggle this year," Trotz said. "There are some really good hockey teams, especially in our division. In the East, they're bunched up pretty good. There's a long season ahead."

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