Thanks to three straight victories, the Washington Capitals entered the week with a tenuous grasp on first place in the Southeast Division for the first time since Nov. 18.
But after the Florida Panthers earned a point in their 3-2 shootout loss to the Boston Bruins on Monday night, the Capitals fell to second place. The battle to remain in the Eastern Conference playoff picture will likely continue all season long.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best hockey yet,” forward Jeff Halpern said. “I think early in the year, first seven games, we felt real good about it. But overall, I don’t think we played up to the level where we think we can be. At times we have and at times we’ve sagged a bit, and we’ve looked out of place against teams. To still have a chance at a lot of goals you set out at the beginning of the year, it’s a good feeling, but it’s just over the halfway point — still a long way to go.”
The Capitals’ 2-1 win over Carolina tied them in points (50) with the Panthers, who regained sole possession of the top spot a day later.
The Panthers and Washington could be jockeying for top billing in the division throughout the second half of the season, and players know they can’t afford to take steps backward as they play five more games in eight days before the NHL’s all-star break.
“We didn’t achieve anything,” goaltender Tomas Vokoun said. “We’re tied with Florida, tied for eighth spot or third, depends on how you look at it.”
It has been an opportunistic, rather than flawless, stretch. Consider that each of the three wins on the current streak have come at Verizon Center, where the Washington boasts the best home record in the East at 17-5-1, and against teams playing in the second night of back-to-back games. The schedule broke well to the Capitals’ favor, and the contests became ones that the team simply couldn’t afford to fritter away.
“We don’t want to call them must wins, but they’re games that things are lining up nicely for you. You don’t get that all the time,” forward Mike Knuble said. “They’re the ones that you’ve got to get.”
The three opponents Washington faced so far on this homestand — the Penguins, Lightning and Hurricanes — have combined for a 5-13-2 record in January. And while the Capitals came away with wins against each foe, they have a shot differential of minus-40 in the past three outings and have leaned heavily on Vokoun, who is having his best run of the year. The veteran netminder is 7-2 in his past nine starts with a .940 save percentage and 1.97 goals against average.
The Capitals play one more game at home Tuesday, against yet another team traveling for the latter portion of back-to-back games, when they host the New York Islanders. Then they hit the road — where they’ve been dreadful, capturing just 15 out of a possible 40 points so far this year — for a three-game trip to Montreal, Carolina and Pittsburgh that will further test their mettle.
“This is where we hoped to be I guess,” Karl Alzner said. “We’re happy that we are where we are. It’s nice to see that we can have a season that everybody’s saying is not very good and still be in a good spot. We’re lucky that Florida or Tampa isn’t running away with our division. It’s nice to see that we’re in the hunt.”