With just a few games to go in the regular season, the Washington Capitals have been playing some of their best hockey of the season down the stretch. And on Wednesday, that hard work can pay off as Washington has a big opportunity to overtake the Pittsburgh Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division and continue shaking up the playoff picture in the East.
Right now, things are clicking for the Capitals (43-23-10), who have won six of their last seven games and have also put up convincing wins over playoff teams like the Colorado Avalanche, Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning. They punched their ticket to the playoffs on Sunday.
Washington currently sits at 96 points, just one behind Pittsburgh in the division, and passing them would get them out of the second Wild Card spot and — for the moment — out of facing the top seed in the East in the first round. For John Carlson and company it’s not just about the team’s position in the East, but continuing to defy expectations with the postseason right around the corner.
“We want to feel confident in how we’re playing going into the playoffs,” Carlson said on Wednesday. “We want to push up in the standings as high as we can and certainly play better hockey. So I think we’ve done that, but the main point was not to just get to this point but to keep going and keep playing. You find the identity back a little bit you find what works for our team best, and you try to stick to that as much as you can.”
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While clinching a playoff spot did give the team a little bit of breathing room, Marcus Johansson agreed with Carlson, saying that the team wants to keep the momentum going, which can translate to success entering the playoffs on a hot streak.
“I don’t think [our mentality] changed much for us [after clinching],” Johansson added. “We still want to move up a little bit if we can. We can’t just let up and slow down, and then all the sudden turn it on when it comes to playoffs.”
For the Capitals, keeping the momentum going means getting the same high standard of play the team has seen over this recent stretch.
Alex Ovechkin and the star players continue to deliver, but the team is also getting plenty of offense from secondary scorers in Lars Eller, Anthony Mantha and the powerhouse fourth line of Johan Larsson-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway. Over this stretch, Washington has managed at least three goals.
“As a hockey player, you want to fight for playoffs, you want to fight for Cup,” Alex Ovechkin said, adding, “We just play the game. It’s nice we score lots of goals.”
Not only that, the defense has tightened up, as the team is stepping up to block shots and lay on the physicality while also getting the puck up ice and getting involved in the rush. All the while, the goaltending race is getting interesting as Ilya Samsonov is making a bit of a case for the No. 1 spot heading into the postseason with four wins over his last five starts.
Washington drops the puck with the struggling Vegas Golden Knights, who are looking to get back in playoff territory with five games left in the 2021-22 campaign, on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET. It’ll be the fourth game of a five-game road swing for the Capitals, who are looking to keep a “playoff” mentality over this final push.
“This is a good time to get our game going and get our mind set,” Johansson said. “This is the way we want to play. It’s going to be like this in the playoffs.”