- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 1, 2009

There is no doubt about the Washington Capitals’ ultimate goal this season: It begins and ends with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman handing the Stanley Cup to captain Chris Clark.

Along the way, there are other goals for the Caps to cross off their checklist, including capturing a third consecutive Southeast Division title and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. As the season moves into its second month, the Caps have put themselves in position to challenge for the top spot in the East and could make a move in November.

“We want to be in that race,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We want to be mentioned with the good teams. That has to be your goal, because you can’t set goals that are less than that. My current goals are way more immediate, like having the best November.”

Despite some suspect efforts against inferior opponents, Washington has built a comfortable lead in the Southeast and with 19 points trails only Pittsburgh in the conference. As nice as their record looks, there is reason to believe the Caps have more to give.

The Caps have produced some of their best efforts (at Boston and vs. San Jose and Philadelphia) against teams expected to be among the league’s elite.

“I think we do have a really good team, and we knew that,” goalie Jose Theodore said. “Right now, we’re sitting in a good position, but we can still play more consistent. We’re obviously working in the right direction. If you look at October, we’ve picked up a lot of points and only lost two games in regulation. We just have to be aware that there is a lot more improvement to be made.”

Added forward Brendan Morrison: “There are some positives we have to look at. First, we had a great month - recordwise it was really good. The process could still be better; the way we play could be better. But if you look at how we played against better teams, I thought we met those challenges pretty well.”

With forward Tomas Fleischmann back in the lineup, the Caps are also one of the healthiest teams in the East. Yes, they are without faceoff/penalty-killing specialist Boyd Gordon and tough defenseman John Erskine, but their injury list pales in comparison with some of the other top teams.

The Penguins played Friday without three top-nine forwards (Evgeni Malkin, Max Talbot and Tyler Kennedy) and their top defenseman (Sergei Gonchar). Philadelphia is missing two top-six forwards in Simon Gagne and Danny Briere. Thanks to injuries (Marc Savard and Milan Lucic) and trades (Phil Kessel and Chuck Kobasew), Boston is missing four of its top nine forwards from last season. New Jersey is short forwards Patrik Elias and Jay Pandolfo and top defenseman Paul Martin. The Rangers played Friday without top forward Marian Gaborik as well as Christopher Higgins and Sean Avery.

“There’s going to be a stretch of the season where every team struggles with injuries or goes through a funk. It is too long of a season to not have some adversity,” defenseman Brian Pothier said. “We haven’t played our best hockey yet, so being healthy is a huge help. There will probably be a stretch of the season where we struggle with injuries, so it is important to build up a cushion now and perform well while we have the full team together.”

The biggest benefit of earning the top seed in the conference (and even the Presidents’ Trophy for most points in the NHL) is home-ice advantage. Having home-ice hasn’t exactly been kind to the Caps the past two years; the next well-played Game 7 at Verizon Center will be the first for the home team.

Still, having four games at home instead of three and all of the added benefits from that is a huge reason for the Caps to stay motivated and try to secure the No. 1 spot in the East.

“We love playing in our own rink. We have some of the best fans in the league, and this city really supports us,” Pothier said. “Just look last year in the [Stanley Cup] Finals. Pittsburgh and Detroit went back and forth - home win after home win - and you have to go into a hostile building and play unbelievable just to get that one win.”