- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

At this time last season, the Washington Capitals were in a furious dash to the finish line, trying to gain ground on other teams and squeak into the playoffs.

Much has changed for the Caps since then. This year they enter the final quarter of the season with a comfortable lead in the Southeast Division, so they must find other means of motivation.

“Last year we were fighting and clinging for our lives, and we had a lot of uncertainty,” defenseman Tom Poti said. “We didn’t know if we were going to make the playoffs or what was going to happen. This year it’s a complete 180. We’re at the top of our division and looking down at other teams instead of looking up. There is a lot more confidence, and it is a lot more fun.”

Each night last season, members of the Caps would go home and scour the Internet or spend time in front of the television to catch the scores from around the league. There were several teams for the Caps to root against, and sometimes it was hard to decipher how a result in a certain game would help the team more.

These days there isn’t nearly as much scoreboard watching. There are only two teams for the Caps to monitor as they try to keep ahead of New Jersey for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and track down Boston, which has a nine-point advantage for the top spot.

“Last year there were a lot of teams to hurdle,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We were watching every night and hoping to get a little help. You’d see a three-point game between teams you were trying to catch and you’d go, ‘Aw man, this almost seems impossible.’ This year it is a little different. We are just cognizant of mainly two teams. This year we’re in there. Now we’re trying to vie for the top spot. We want to be the best.”

Warding off complacency can be one of the biggest challenges for a team like the Caps, who boast a 13-point lead over Florida in their quest for back-to-back Southeast titles. While the Caps are on pace for possibly the most successful regular season in franchise history, there have been missteps along the way.

Many of them have come against inferior competition. This might be a concern for the Caps because of the upcoming schedule.

Beginning Thursday with a game against Atlanta at Verizon Center, 16 of the Washington’s final 21 games are against teams outside the top eight in their respective conferences.

“I try to keep that same mindset about winning [every game], but then sometimes I’ve got to be realistic that it doesn’t happen,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Every team in sports has their own sense of urgency, and they know when it is. I’d like to think ours is every night.

“As a team now, we have to get some consistency. That’s got to be the goal. It has to be a team goal. I always… think, ‘How can you not be motivated to play in the National Hockey League?’ But that is from a guy who didn’t get to play that many games up here.”

Note: Boudreau said right wing Viktor Kozlov is likely to return to the lineup Thursday against Atlanta. He has missed the past nine games with a groin injury. Kozlov has 11 goals and 31 points in 47 games and had become a fixture on the team’s top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom before the injury.

“He’s like a piece to the puzzle on that line; he allows you to do so much more,” Boudreau said. “He’s that round peg in that round hole - it is a good fit.”

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