- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2012

Don’t tell Tomas Vokoun it’s too early to consider the standings in the Eastern Conference.

“Well, it’s not that early,” the Washington Capitals goaltender said Friday night. “We’re past the midpoint. Couple days ago we were out of the playoffs. So I don’t think we have any cushion to relax.”

No, the Caps can’t relax — especially now. Two home wins after an 0-2 California road trip and they’re climbing. First place in the Southeast Division is within reach.

In fact, Washington can tie the Florida Panthers for the top spot with a victory Sunday against the Carolina Hurricanes. With that in mind, defenseman Karl Alzner isn’t afraid to talk about the value of picking up points now and not missing opportunities.

“I think everybody is classifying all these games as must-wins now,” Alzner said. “We’re not in any position to say it’s just a game. So I think we’re just trying to win them all.”

Sunday’s 5 p.m. game at Verizon Center is yet another advantageous situation for the Caps. They’ll face a last-place Hurricanes team coming off a game Saturday against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. All four games of this home stand are against an opponent on the second half of back-to-backs, coming into town very late the night before.

“Our players have played hard in ridiculous situations where the other team waits for you at home while you go to bed at 4 o’clock and you played the last night,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said Friday night after his team lost to the Caps. “We can’t ask more from our players.”

Four of five are at home, but Washington is in the midst of a stretch of five games in eight nights.

“Yeah, it’s pretty hard schedule. But for me personally I like when it’s tight game and you don’t have lots of day off,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “You just have game all the time. Of course sometime you need some rest. But I think right now we’re in good mode, and we just have to keep going, keep going.”

At home, the Caps have the best points percentage in the Eastern Conference and that trend needs to continue given how much they’ve struggled on the road.

With the Southeast Division lead so close, the Caps can’t afford a slip-up.

“Every win is important. You see how tight the race is,” Vokoun said. “We’re not sitting 10 points ahead of everybody. Can’t afford bad effort or lose a game here or there. We’re right on the edge of being in or out. So we need every win.”

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