There are one dozen games left. If you’re thinking that there is still time to catch Boston for first in the Eastern Conference, a little rewind is in order -- a comparison to last year's chase of Carolina for the Southeast title:
That 11-1-0 record of last year would be hard to duplicate, especially since there isn’t the same urgency attached to simply making the playoffs. And Boston isn’t Carolina, even if the Bruins are only 8-8-3 since February 1st and 3-4-0 in March.
And there is the matter of the New Jersey Devils, a team that is 13-5-0 since February 3rd and 5-1-0 in March. What’s more, Martin Brodeur is 7-1-0 since his return from injured reserve and shows no signs of rust having accumulated during his layoff (he has allowed two or fewer goals in each of his seven wins).
The Capitals might catch Boston, after all, although it still seems highly unlikely. But the team they appear to have even a lesser chance of catching is New Jersey, which holds a one-point lead on Washington and two games in hand. The best hope for the other seven teams that make the dance in the East is that the Devils are peaking a month or two too soon.
The Caps had their fate in their own hands last year, in a sense. Two of those last dozen games were against the team in front of them – Carolina – and the Caps won both. The Caps have no games left with either Boston or New Jersey (and those two play each other one more time, so there remains the possibility of one of those three-point “draft” games where one team pulls another along, getting two points while the other gets one), although the Caps do appear to have the easiest schedule remaining, in terms of opponents' winning percentage, of any of the team now in the top eight in the East.
The striking thing about the Caps last year was their ability to absolutely shut teams down. Some of that might have been the play of goaltender Cristobal Huet, but consistently holding teams in check – the Caps allowed only 22 goals in their last 12 games, five of them in their only loss – suggests a team-wide adoption of a shut down mentality. In fact, the last dozen was a carry-over and improvement from their play over the previous five weeks. From February 1st through March 9th, when they played their 70th game, the Caps allowed only 44 goals in 18 games (2.44/game).
Last year, the rush to make the playoffs had its own sense of immediate urgency. There was no luxury, if that is the right word, to be able to prepare for the playoffs, to make sure all the players are on the same page in system and strategy. That is what is left for the Caps in the last dozen games this time around -- to tend to business in their own schedule, to get ready for the playoffs, to re-acquaint themselves with the structure that Coach Bruce Boudreau cited as necessary for the playoffs. In that way, it might not going be so much going back to last year, it might be going back to training camp.