- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2010

While this year’s Capitals left the rest of the Southeast Division in the dust, they also managed to clinch a division title faster than any other NHL club has in over three decades.

Holding a 33-point edge over Atlanta with 15 games left to play for Washington, the Caps officially became the first team to secure a playoff berth and won their third straight division crown with the Thrashers losing to the Blue Jackets Thursday night in Columbus — one full month before the regular season ends on April 11th.

It is the earliest in an NHL season a team has sealed up a divisional crown since the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens wrapped up the Norris Division with 17 games left in the regular season.

To put it in context, the Boston Bruins were the first team to clinch a division title last season, and they wrapped up the Northeast Division crown on March 22, with nine games left to play in the regular season as they finished the year 27 points up on Montreal. The 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings ended up winning the Central Division by 24 points, and clinched with 11 games to play with a win on March 13th of that year.

In 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning clinched the Southeast on March 9 of that year, with 13 games left to play en route to an eventual 28-point cushion over the Thrashers.

In the past 30 years, just two teams have managed to clinch their divisions with 13 games still left in the regular season — and the Caps bested that mark by two games.

The 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, who clinched the Central Division on St. Patrick’s Day with a win over the Flames with 13 games still to play as they ended up besting Chicago by 37 points and amassing 131 points — just one shy of the all-time record. Likewise, the 1981-82 Oilers also closed out the Canucks in the Smythe Division with 13 left to play, clinching on the last day of February that season.

Going back even further, the 1988-89 Canadiens clinched on March 10 of that season, with 10 games left to play. The 1983-84 Oilers clinched the Smythe Division on March 4th, with 11 games left in the season. In 1980-81, the St. Louis Blues also clinched with 12 left to play on March 7th.

The Capitals’ clincher is the fastest since the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty teams of the late 1970s, as the 1977-78 edition clinched the Norris on March 1st — with 17 games left to play. The Habs that year finished 41 points ahead of Detroit.

Of course, this presents a challenge to Bruce Boudreau’s staff, who have to keep the team motivated through one more month of regular-season play before the playoffs begin in mid-April. While a division title is still a team goal, the club has its sights set high this season, and would still like to win the top seed in the East and the President’s Trophy before beginning the quest for the Stanley Cup.

Washington next plays Friday night to wrap up a five-game homestand when Tampa Bay pays a visit to Verizon Center, before the Caps head on the road for a four-game road trip. With the division now in hand, the Caps hold a 14-point lead over Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference standings, as the Pens lost to Carolina in overtime Thursday.

With four new players added at the trade deadline, it is allowing Caps coach Bruce Boudreau to try different line combinations and give some players a bit of a rest as the regular season hits the home stretch.

“The playoffs don’t start till April [15th],” Boudreau said Wednesday night. “As long as we can, and I don’t like doing it either, we’ll keep rotating guys in and out of the lineup to keep them fresh and sharp. The players don’t like it, but they understand it. They have the common goal.”