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Capitals on the verge of clinching East’s top seed

A couple weeks ago, after an emotional shootout victory in Philadelphia, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau called earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference an "uphill climb." Turns out it wasn't exactly as hard as scaling Mount Everest.

It took a torrid stretch since and the Flyers faltering, but with one game left in the regular season, the Caps are in the driver's seat for the top spot in the East and home-ice advantage throughout at least the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"I think we've been playing pretty well the past month-and-a-half or two months, and this was one of our long-term goals," forward Matt Hendricks said. "We have a chance to get that and put it in our hat."

The top spot going into the playoffs doesn't mean a banner like capturing the Southeast Division. And as players have said, finishing first last season, when Washington was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, didn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy league.

But many around the Caps talked about the goal going into the week of picking up a 3-0 record and hoping for another Philadelphia slip-up because "it'd be a lot better to be No. 1 than it would be to be No. 2," Boudreau said.

It's almost within the Caps' grasp, yet again. They can clinch first place if they pick up a point at the Florida Panthers on Saturday night or if the Flyers don't win both their remaining games (Friday night at the Buffalo Sabres and Saturday night vs. the New York Islanders).

But because the Caps could have it all sewn up before they even take the ice for the morning skate in Sunrise, Fla., Boudreau doesn't yet know if he'll give some players a rest as he did with Scott Hannan and Jason Arnott on Wednesday.

"I still think we have to wait to see what's at stake on Saturday before we start taking anything for granted," the coach said. "I'm like you guys; I'm watching the scoreboards and see what's going on and, hopefully, get that game over with and focus on what's ahead of that."

What's ahead looks an awful lot like last season: being a top seed possibly facing a tough first-round series against a team such as the New York Rangers or Montreal Canadiens. This season has been a bit more of a bumpy ride, however, than last, when the Caps rolled to 121 points and the Presidents' Trophy.

"I guess it wasn't all that bad all the time," winger Mike Knuble said. "We've had ups and downs, and that's good for us because it made us re-examine where we're going as a group."

Whatever re-examination, it has been quite a run just since beating the Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on March 22. Since then, the Caps have gone 5-1-1 (11 points) to put themselves in this spot going into the regular season's final weekend. But even with the talk about how tough it would be to get there, don't think players are surprised.

"With the team we have, I think we could [see this coming]," winger Jason Chimera said. "We're playing well down the stretch; I think that's a key. We've got some big wins against some big teams."

A win at the Panthers may or may not qualify as big, depending on what happens in Buffalo on Friday. While the Caps aren't taking first place for granted, they understand the season by which they'll be measured has yet to get under way.

"We started a job that we'd like to finish on Saturday on a positive note," Boudreau said. "Sometimes the most exciting part of your life is two months long, and sometimes it's only two weeks long. We hope it's longer than it was last year."

If nothing else, the Caps think they've put themselves in the best position to make that hope a reality.

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