The Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom celebrates a goal last week. He and his teammates must play harder this season in their new division. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Friday before Woodlin Elementary School opens for the school year is a nervous time for the kids in my neighborhood. That’s the day they find out whom they will have as a teacher.

As at all schools, some teachers at Woodlin are tougher than others. The tough teachers give more homework, don’t put up with any nonsense in class and make sure the kids are doing their best work all the time.

Every kid knows that who your teacher is makes a big difference.

I was thinking about that because the Washington Capitals’ hockey season has started, and the Caps have a tough teacher this year.

The National Hockey League changed from six five-team divisions to four bigger divisions, each with seven or eight teams. The Caps used to be in the Southeast Division and played lots of games against easy teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

In fact, in the past two seasons the Caps recorded 27 wins, 11 losses and four ties (27-11-4) against their Southeast Division rivals. They skated to the Southeast Division championship in five of the past six seasons.

Now, Washington will be in the Metropolitan Division and will face off against such traditional playoff teams as the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers as well as the always-competitive Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders.

Being in a tough division will be like having a tough teacher. With more games against better teams, the Caps will have to play hard every period, tighten up their defense and not take so many foolish penalties. They will have to play their best — all the time.

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green return as the Big Three for Washington. They are joined by second-line center Mikhail Grabovski from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Goalie Braden Holtby is back between the pipes to anchor the defense. So the Caps should have enough talent to play with the stronger competition.

But as all kids know, sometimes the tough teacher is the best teacher. You might learn more when the teacher doesn’t make it easy for you.

In the same way, playing against their Metropolitan Division rivals game after game might help the Caps get ready for the playoffs. In the past, the Caps have stormed through the regular season and the Southeast Division, only to stumble in the playoffs. Perhaps if the team gets used to playing hard every night, it will be more likely to win a playoff series, when the games are always close and hard-fought.

We’ll see. But I think that by the end of the season, the Caps will be a better team. Because this year, they have a tough teacher.

Bowen writes the sports opinion column for the KidsPost. He is also the author of 19 sports books for kids. His latest is “Perfect Game.”