The Washington Times - April 11, 2011, 09:12PM

A mere four points separated the Capitals (107) from the fifth-place team in the East (Lightning, 103). That’s the most compacted the conference has been, 1 through 5, in the Caps’ 37 years of existence.

Here are the five tightest finishes in the Capitals’ conference since 1974-75, their first season in the NHL:

SEE RELATED:


● 2010-11 (4 points apart): Caps (107), Flyers (106), Penguins (106), Bruins (103), Lightning (103).

● 2003-04 (5): Lightning (106), Bruins (104), Maple Leafs (103), Senators (102), Flyers (101).

● 2001-02 (6): Bruins (101), Maple Leafs (100), Flyers (97), Islanders (96), Devils (95).

● 1983-84 (6): Islanders (104), Bruins (104), Sabres (103), Caps (101), Flyers (98).

● 1999-00 (7): Flyers (105), Devils (103), Caps (102), Maple Leafs (100), Panthers (98).

It just shows you the effect of free agency and the salary cap – not to mention expansion. The talent in the league is much more evenly distributed than it used to be. There just isn’t as big a gap between the higher-seeded clubs and the lower-seeded ones.

(Consider: In 1977 and again in ’78, there was a 51-point difference between the first-place team – in both cases the Canadiens – and the fifth-place team.)

Indeed, the Capitals finished just 14 points ahead of their first-round opponents, the Rangers (93). Since they joined the league, only two first-place teams in their conference have had tougher draws to begin the playoffs.

Here’s the company they keep:

● 2007-08 (10 points apart): Canadiens (104) vs. Bruins (94).  (The Habs won the series, 4-3.)

● 1983-84 (11): Islanders (104) vs. Rangers (93). (The Isles won, 3-2.)

● 2001-02 (14): Bruins (101) vs. Canadiens (87). (The Habs won, 4-2.)

● 2003-04 (15): Lightning (106) vs. Islanders (91). (The Lightning won, 4-1.)

● 1998-99 (15): Devils (105) vs. Penguins (90). (The Pens won, 4-3.)

● 1995-96 (15): Flyers (103) vs. Lightning (88). (The Flyers won, 4-2.)

Note the higher-finishing club won four of the six series. That, at least, bodes well for the Capitals. But no matter how the first round goes, the Caps will have to fight their way through field of teams that’s remarkably comparable to them.