- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2001

Welcome to the stretch drive, the time of the season in the NHL when teams are 1) pushing for a conference and/or division title; 2) jockeying for playoff position, home ice or a favorable opponent; 3) trying to get into postseason any way possible; or 4) figuring a way to finish dead last so they can get the top pick at the draft.

The Washington Capitals could hardly be in better position with 20 games (12 at home) to play. They have a virtual lock in the Southeast Division and sit a point behind Philadelphia for the second seed in the East and five points behind conference leader Ottawa.

And it appears everything is coming together at the right time for Washington, which got its usual Nov. 1 wake-up call and has a record of 30-14-6-0 since winning only two of 12 games in October.

The Caps are on a 12-game unbeaten streak (10-0-2), tied for longest in the league this season. They are on a run of 6-0-1 on the road and have won five straight overall. Washington's special teams are ranked No. 2 in the league (the rank is determined by combining the ratings of the two units), trailing Detroit.

If this campaign is a mirror of last season and it is a virtual reflection in many ways Washington is ahead of its pace from last year, when it put up 102 points, third highest in team history. After 62 games, the Caps have a record of 32-19-10-1 for 75 points; after 62 games last season, the Caps were 30-21-10-1 for 71 points. And Washington went 13-4-2-1 on its stretch drive last season, which the Caps would love to duplicate.

Saturday night the Caps moved 11 points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes with a well-played 2-1 victory. Even if the Caps won only half of their final 20 games, which would give them an additional 20 points for 95 on the year, the Hurricanes would all but have to run the table to catch up. There are no other contenders for the division title.

Coach Ron Wilson echoed his sentiments of a year ago Saturday night, saying he wasn't satisfied reaching one plateau when another was visible.

"This gets us a step closer," he said. "Now we're only a point behind Philadelphia for second in the East, and like I've said all along, we've always focused on the teams ahead of us while at the same time trying to put as much distance as possible between you and your pursuers."

There is a reason why Washington wants to have some control over its playoff opponents. The Caps want to avoid the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team against which Washington has been spectacularly unsuccessful during the postseason. The Caps earned home ice advantage last season but were denied it when the company that owns and operates Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena booked a dance recital at the building and the dates could not be freed (although the show was later canceled because of poor ticket sales).

"I don't necessarily want to target any one team ahead of us. We're targeting all of them," general manager George McPhee said. "Our objective is to finish as high as we can every year. We know what we are a very hard-working team with great character. We're not trying to get ahead of ourselves. We're going to play as well as we can, win quietly and keep going."

Wilson has made few personnel moves in recent weeks other than line shuffles but made one Saturday night that seemed to give the team more confidence in the waning minutes of a tight game. He put James Black into the game and sat Jan Bulis. Still, Wilson likes his lineup right now.

"We like the team we have," McPhee said. "Chemistry and intangibles mean a lot, and [the makeup] of this team works. It's playing well right now. If there's any way to improve the group, we will, but I'm not prepared to take anything out of this team right now."

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