The morning after clinching the Southeast Division and a spot in the playoffs, the Washington Capitals could have taken it easy. They’re locked into the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with two meaningless games left in the season.
Spirits were high and the mood was loose, but coach Adam Oates ran his team through a full practice. It’s business as usual as he and the Caps figure out how to approach this time before the playoffs begin.
“Obviously that’s the magic equation: What are you going to do?” Oates said. “Given where the schedule’s going to start, we’re going to keep playing.”
It’s impossible to manufacture the desperation that was evident as the Caps chased down a division title, but in facing the Ottawa Senators on Thursday and the Boston Bruins on Saturday, players want to make sure they don’t lose their edge at the wrong time.
The playoffs will begin at Verizon Center on Tuesday or Wednesday, with the day and opponent to be determined.
“We still have the same mentality; we still have to win hockey games,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We don’t want to take any steps back going into playoffs here, and so we have to continue to play strong, solid games to make sure that we’re fine-tuning our game for the playoffs.”
The Caps look like they’re tuned just fine. They’ve won 10 of 11 games dating to April 2, thanks to contributions up and down the lineup, most notably captain Alex Ovechkin’s 13 goals and six assists and goaltender Braden Holtby’s 1.97 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.
It’s Oates’ hope that the Caps can stay in the same rhythm going into the playoffs, and his goal to keep his players’ conditioning level the same. Mentally, though, there has to be a concern after wrapping up a playoff berth.
“In the past, we haven’t necessarily gone into the playoffs playing our best hockey and maybe taken the last couple of games off, and it hasn’t worked out for us,” forward Eric Fehr said. “So hopefully we’ve learned our lesson and we can be more prepared come playoff time.”
Of course, defenseman Karl Alzner said, the Caps would love to be “riding high” into the playoffs having won 12 of 13. But it’s a difficult balance between going all-out to win and saving something for next week and beyond.
“Most important thing [is to] just be healthy and be ready for most important games,” Ovechkin said. “Probably the last month and a half, like everybody play the max level. Right now, we have that kind of two games to see and take maybe not a break, but just to be ready for the playoffs. Give everything that we got and all emotions and allow us to be ready for playoffs.”
Oates doesn’t want his team in cruise control. He implied he has no plans to rest any players or give healthy scratches Wojtek Wolski, Jeff Schultz or Tom Poti a game just to keep someone else fresh. He wants the “same routine we got going.”
In that light, defenseman Mike Green called Wednesday’s upbeat but tough practice “perfect.”
“It’s important for us to rest but at the same time not get out of the same [frame of mind] we’ve been this last stretch,” Green said.
This last stretch has been mostly excellent for the Caps, but a loss to the Senators last week was the one pitfall. Losing at Ottawa in January isn’t a pleasant memory, either.
Ottawa stands seventh in the East and is one of Washington’s potential first-round opponents, which adds another element to Thursday’s game at Verizon Center given that the Caps don’t want to go 0-3 against the Senators.
“If we do end up playing them, we don’t want to give them any confidence against us,” Brouwer said. “They already have enough as it is.”
Oates brushed off concern about the psychological benefit of proving something against the Senators, but that doesn’t mean he considers the final two games meaningless. Far from it, and he has his players buying into his viewpoint.
“I think to treat every game like a playoff game from here on in is something to kind of keep us rolling and keep us playing our best,” forward Jay Beagle said. “You don’t want to let down and lose one of these games going into the playoffs. You want to be going in on a high note and feeling confident.”
Confidence can be fickle, but losses in the final two might not do anything for a team that showed last year it could flip a switch in Game 1 of the playoffs and perform. Any more injuries on top of Brooks Laich (groin) and Joel Ward (knee) change the equation, but Oates and the Caps can’t worry about that while staying on the same path.
What they are concerned with is maintaining the same habits that got them into the playoffs.
“I think it’s important to stay on a roll,” left wing Aaron Volpatti said. “If we can get these next two wins, I think that’ll be big. Our confidence is high and we want to keep it that way.”