Not too early for Capitals to focus on NHL standings

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It’s not normal for Karl Alzner to monitor the NHL standings 20 games into a season. But it’s also not normal for he and the Washington Capitals to have just 20 games played by the time March rolls around. That’s why the defenseman doesn’t think it’s too early to start keeping track.

“I don’t think so. Not in this season,” Alzner said. “Normally I would start looking at the standings around the halfway point of the season, and when you start at the halfway point, it was just natural for me to start looking right away. I’m well aware of how things look right now.”

That’s not great for the Caps, or it’s not so bad, depending on your perspective. With 17 points after Saturday’s 3-0 victory at the Winnipeg Jets, they’re looking up at most of the Eastern Conference. But they’re not far back of the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes.

“I think we’re still right there,” defenseman John Erskine said. “If we can beat some of those teams and take our division, it’ll be good.”

Washington is off to a good start in that department, going 5-2 against division opponents so far. And it has 11 more games left against the rest of the Southeast, a division somebody has to win.

That’s why it’s legitimate to envision capturing the Southeast as the Caps’ easiest path to the playoffs.

“We’ve obviously talked about it,” coach Adam Oates said last week. “There are still a lot of games left and we’re not trying to think too far ahead like that, but of course it enters your mind.”

That’s the big picture with 28 games left, and center Mike Ribeiro said it’s dangerous to look at it given the number of teams in the race. But even while stuck far out of a playoff spot, he allowed for the possibility of the Caps shooting for the No. 3 seed by virtue of winning the division.

“I think the closest [thing] from us will be against our division,” Ribeiro said. “So I think it’s a good focus for us to try to get that division and go from there.”

That kind of long-term thinking doesn’t fit some hockey players programmed their whole careers to take things one game at a time. Everything is day-to-day until told otherwise.

“Most important thing right now for us is we don’t think about the standings, how the different team[s] play,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We’re still close. Of course we look at how different teams playing, but we still have 30 games left.

“It can change like this, like you win two, they lose two or three and you back on track and they stopping and out of the playoffs and we in.”

Ovechkin acknowledged that the Caps in recent years haven’t spent a long time near the bottom of the standings. But he knows it’s part of this “messed-up season” that has been hard to predict.

Before this past weekend, the Hurricanes hadn’t beaten a division opponent and yet held onto first place. At one point last week, the Caps were, at the same time, last in the East and four points out of third place.

Those kinds of quirks make it tough for players to stare at the standings, especially when teams in front of them play into overtime and both teams get a point. Those three-point games make it hard to catch up.

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