Capitals center Jay Beagle skates against New Jersey on Saturday. (Brad Mills/USA Today Sports)

After an offseason of change that saw Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Daniel Winnik depart via free agency, Marcus Johansson traded and Nate Schmidt plucked in the expansion draft, few experts picked the Washington Capitals to win the Metropolitan Division. The Capitals still boasted one of the most talented rosters in the NHL, but outside expectations were diminished, however slightly, for the two-time defending Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Guess who’s in first place.

The Capitals’ 5-2 win over Johansson and the Devils on Saturday night capped a 10-2-2 December that helped Alex Ovechkin and Co. complete their climb to the top of the Metropolitan Division. Washington (24-13-3) has lost only four times in regulation since suffering back-to-back losses by a combined 12-5 at Nashville and Colorado in mid-November and has the second-most points in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday’s game at Carolina.

“It’s nice to be able to kind of fly under the radar,” Capitals center Jay Beagle said Tuesday during an interview with The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan. “The last couple years, there’s been a lot of talk about us, and so a lot of pressure on, and so it was nice to kind of be able to go out and figure it out as a team because we knew we were going to have some new guys. I think for a lot of us coming back that have been here for a while, we knew that obviously the goal was to be where we’re at right now, in first in the division and to keep building. It’s been a fun season. It’s been fun having new guys and building a new identity with a new group of guys. We’re hot right now, like you guys said. We had a great December, and we just got to keep this going into January now.”

Beagle said he “never bought into” the outside talk about the Capitals potentially taking a step back or beginning the rebuilding process this season.

“We have a great core here and a lot of great players,” said Beagle, who has four goals and seven assists. “So, every year, we should be contenders to win the Presidents’ Trophy and then go in the playoffs and be contenders to win the Stanley Cup. That’s the way we look at it. That’s our mind-set.”

Washington won its second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy last season but bowed out of the playoffs in the second round for the third straight year. The Capitals haven’t advanced to the Eastern Conference final since their only Stanley Cup appearance in 1998. While the pressure will ramp up, as always, come April, Beagle suggested that diminished outside expectations for the Capitals at the start of the season were a blessing.

“No one puts more expectations and more pressure on ourselves than us,” Beagle said. “No one else can put more pressure on yourself to perform than yourself. You want to win more than anyone. That’s what’s gotten you here, and that’s what drives you. When you have that extra kind of pressure and that extra . . . just people always scrutinizing and looking at everything as a team and individually, I think it adds pressure that’s necessarily not very good. It’s nice this year to come in at the beginning of the year and just to be able to figure it out as a team and not have that expectation of coming out of the gates of being in first place and leading the league right away in points. This year, it’s been a little different in that sense, and it’s been good. It’s allowed guys that are new to the team to figure out their role and allowed our team just to figure out our identity. It’s been nice for a change.”

Of course, the division standings at the start of the new year mean even less than the Presidents’ Trophy. Just ask the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who are in seventh place in the Metropolitan, and just one point out of the basement. Two years ago at this time, Washington had the best record in the Eastern Conference, and the Penguins, who had fired coach Mike Johnston a few weeks earlier, were in fifth place in the division. Pittsburgh turned things around under Mike Sullivan, its current coach, entered the playoffs as one of the NHL’s hottest teams and eliminated the Capitals in the second round.

Maybe this year will be different. That would be nice for a change.

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