The Southeast Division stinks, and the Washington Capitals know it. They're not ashamed of that, nor their domination of the Winnipeg Jets, Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.
"It's been our saving grace this year," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "It's been lucky that we've got to play those teams so much, but at the same time we've done a good job with them and we haven't taken a lot of those games lightly because we know how important they are."
The Caps lead a division that could better be known as the Southeasy based largely on their 12-3 record against the Jets, Hurricanes, Lightning and Panthers. They're 9-14-2 against the rest of the Eastern Conference yet would earn the No. 3 seed in the playoffs if they maintain this lead.
"Obviously, our division is not as good, and we might end up on the third seed with home-ice advantage when we probably shouldn't since we would be 8 or 7 in our conference," center Mathieu Perreault said. "Yeah, it [stinks] that our division is not that good, but for us it worked out good."
Going into two games against Southeast rivals, Thursday against Carolina and Saturday against Tampa Bay, the Caps have won six straight within the division. They lead second-place Winnipeg by two points and have a game in hand.
It's a far cry from where they were March 14 before the most recent meeting with the Hurricanes, 10 points back of Carolina.
"You looked at it from where we put ourselves before, and it was hard to not look and say, 'It's going to take a bit of a miracle' for us to come back," Holtby said.
A miracle, or the Hurricanes falling off the face of the Earth. Carolina is 1-12-1 since shutting out Washington at Verizon Center on March 12, while Winnipeg is 4-7 in its past 11 games. The Caps are 11-3-1 since that loss.
"We've been able to bounce back and play some real good hockey as of late and get ourselves into a playoff position," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "We're playing phenomenal hockey right now. We have confidence in ourselves, trust in our teammates, trust in our coach and we've got ourselves at the top of the division because of it."
Washington is atop the worst division in hockey, which will likely have only one team in the playoffs. The five Southeast teams are a combined 50-65-9 against the rest of the East.
"Our division hasn't been that solid this year. We can't argue that," forward Matt Hendricks said. "But for the most part we tried not to be too focused on the outside, more looking at our games, our video clips, focusing on the ways we could get better and start climbing the ladder."
The Caps are fortunate to be in the Southeast, which provides a way into the playoffs without needing to battle the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils for a spot. If the Eastern Conference were seeded 1 through 8 without division winners guaranteed a spot in the top three, the Caps would be seventh.
"It wasn't until about four days ago that we would even be in the playoff picture if it wasn't for being third, being at the top of our division," Hendricks said. "That definitely helps."
Crushing inferior division opponents helps, too. After starting this shortened season with back-to-back division losses, the Caps are 12-1 in such matchups. Captain Alex Ovechkin has 14 of his league-leading 26 goals and 13 of his 18 assists in 15 divisional games.
Brouwer said he and his teammates match up well against the rest of the Southeast, while Perreault said the emphasis on division games helps players better mentally prepare for them.
"I think division games are the most important games you're going to play," winger Eric Fehr said. "Obviously, if we're successful in our division we're going to be in a playoff spot, so we know how important they are, and we've got to win them."
After Tuesday's victory at the Montreal Canadiens, the Caps' first regulation victory against one of the conference's elite teams, Perreault said, "It feels like we can beat anybody." That will be tested in the final six games, five of which are against teams currently in playoff positioning.
But all along coach Adam Oates and his players knew the division was within reach, even when they were 14th in the conference.
"A long time ago, when we were seven, eight points out, we still knew that the division was going to be our key to get into the playoffs," Brouwer said. "We know the magnitude of every game that we play within our division."
That includes these games against the Hurricanes and Lightning, even if they're not chances to prove anything to the rest of the NHL. They are opportunities to pick up points and move closer to hanging a fifth Southeast Division champions banner.
"We're in a good position now," Fehr said. "We've earned it, we've fought for it and we don't want to give that up."
The playoffs are the playoffs, even if the Caps get in the Southeasy way.
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