- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2017

If you’re just tuning in to the Capitals this season, you might think you’re watching a rerun.

Last season, Washington, with 74 points and a 15-point lead on the second-place New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division by Feb 1, was running away from the rest of the league on the way to posting the NHL’s best record.

This season, the Capitals come out of the All-Star weekend break again sitting atop their division and leading the NHL with 72 points (though the Columbus Blue Jackets are right behind with 68).

It all feels like deja vu. But going through the same script is just fine with these Capitals — as long as they can rewrite the ending: last season’s first-round playoff collapse to the hated Pittsburgh Penguins.

To do that, the Capitals are looking to keep it rolling for the remaining 33 games of the mentally and physically taxing 82-game season.

“I felt good out there, refreshed,” forward Justin Williams said after Monday’s skate. Williams said the All-Star break couldn’t have come at a better time. “Sometimes you just need a couple of days away to know what you’re missing. It’s fun.”

The Capitals will get another break in the schedule on Feb 12, when the team has a league-mandated bye week of six days off. Many teams in the league have already had their byes.

At first glance, it sounds like the extra rest is would give the Capitals an edge down the stretch, but that’s not how it played out last year. In 2016, Washington had an unscheduled seven-day break after a snowstorm caused the cancellation of a Jan. 22 game against the Anaheim Ducks. When the Capitals returned to play, they lost two consecutive games.

This year’s team isn’t worried about history repeating itself.

“I think we’re all professionals,” Williams said. “I mean, listen, it’s not really a big deal. You just take a couple of days off and you stay with it. Stay in shape for a couple of days and then come back refreshed. I think it’s a great thing that the [player’s association] and the league has done. I’m looking forward to [the bye week] in a couple of weeks.”

One player who appreciated the timing of the All-Star break was defenseman John Carlson. The 27-year-old has missed the last six games with a lower body injury. Carlson said he is close to a return, but he was glad the break meant he didn’t have to miss any games.

“I think it gives you that time to recover,” Carlson said. “Maybe not in terms of ice time. I maybe would have liked to skate or something. But it is what it is. Recharging the batteries is never a bad thing, I don’t think.”

The Capitals will need those batteries, according to writer Dom Luszczyszyn of sports website The Athletic. The hockey stats guru reports Washington’s remaining opponents average just under .500 in winning percentage. That suggests Washington faces a fairly tough schedule down the stretch. Of the teams in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals have the eighth-most difficult schedule and the fourth-most difficult schedule in the Metropolitan.

Grinding out the season against that type of competition may actually be a good thing for the Capitals. Last year, the Capitals lost 10 of 35 games in February, March and April after dropping only eight of 47 to start the season.

With the Blue Jackets and Penguins hot on their heels, this year’s Capitals can’t afford to coast into the playoffs if they intend to author a happier ending for 2016-17.

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