The Washington Capitals have reached the NHL's all-star break precisely where they want to be, leading the Southeast Division and in position to host a first-round playoff series. Their goal for the final 29 games of the regular season is to expand their divisional lead and fine-tune their defensive play.
At five games above .500, the Capitals (24-19-7-3) have matched a season high. They resume play Tuesday against Tampa Bay, which is three points behind the Capitals in the division. All five of Washington's road games in February are against divisional opponents and 11 of 12 games that month are against Eastern Conference teams. With an arduous two-week road trip ahead in March, the time to distance themselves from their rivals is now.
"Obviously, the first game after the all-star game against Tampa is going to be huge," said defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who will be joined by teammate Jaromir Jagr in Sunday's game in Sunrise, Fla. "But at the same time we've done a pretty good job and we have a three-point lead on them. That's pretty good, and we have to keep going the same way. If we continue to play the same way we will do well."
Playing the same way will require continued success on special teams, a focus on team defensive positioning and more big performances from stars like Jagr, Gonchar and Robert Lang. The Capitals have earned at least one standings point in 19 of their last 22 games, with just three losses in regulation since Dec. 14, and have just one loss in their last six games.
While Coach Bruce Cassidy is pleased with his club's consistency, he is not completely satisfied. The coaching staff has been tweaking some minor aspects of its defensive coverage, particularly along the blueline and in the neutral zone, and hopes those changes will be totally integrated into the team's play in the final weeks of the season.
Cassidy has the defensemen stepping over the blueline and forcing teams along the boards -- using the blueline and the boards as extra defensemen, in essence -- whereas the Capitals previously conceded the blueline under former coach Ron Wilson. He also wants to have a forward aligned with the defensemen on the blueline, dividing the ice in thirds, with each player following the forward in front of him into the defensive zone to cut down on blown assignments and confusion.
"We want to do a better job of standing up at the blueline," Cassidy said. "Part of our defensive issues right now is getting our defensemen up the ice so we defend the neutral zone as five and not one. And we would rather have three [players] across [the blueline]. When you play the trap you normally have a triangle [formation], but we're trying to be more linear. We're a little more old school that way."
The Capitals recently have had problems at the blueline at key times. In Tuesday's 4-3 loss to St. Louis, bad exchanges at that area led to two of the Blues' goals as they rallied from a two-goal deficit late in the second period. Washington has experienced several stretches of play where it gets too passive with a lead and has been outscored 50-46 in the third period this season.
"We've got to be able to shut the other team down better than we do," defenseman Calle Johansson said. "Once we have a one- or two-goal lead we should be able to go out there and completely shut them down, and we're not at that point yet where we can do that. That's what I think we should improve on."
The players are also still taking to Cassidy's more aggressive penalty-killing schemes, and while the power play has risen from the depths of the NHL to the top 10, the penalty kill remains in the bottom third of the league. Washington's performance Thursday night, shutting down Pittsburgh's top-rated power play unit on all four of its chances, was a positive step, and the Capitals' ability to rotate five groups of forwards on the ice to kill a recent five-minute penalty indicates an expanded pool of players could be called upon to aid the regular penalty killers.
Cassidy continues to make minor adjustments to his forward lines -- although the defensive pairs seem set -- and said he might try to concoct two checking lines to match on the opposition for the playoffs. He could reunite Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Mike Grier as one dominant unit, or keep Halpern and Konowalchuk with goal scorer Peter Bondra and try Grier with rookie center Brian Sutherby and winger Dainius Zubrus as another shutdown line, while still finding a way to keep Jagr on the ice for upwards of 25 minutes a game.