- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2021

At the Washington Capitals’ optional practice Wednesday, coach Peter Laviolette and his team discussed the outlook ahead. With 10 games remaining in the regular season, Washington holds first place in the East Division, but that doesn’t guarantee much — not with how tightly packed the rest of the division is. In second, level on points, sit the New York Islanders. One point behind them are the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Boston Bruins aren’t far behind.

All four squads have a legitimate chance at the division title.

“I mean, any one of the four teams could win the division,” Laviolette said. “It’s that close, and it’s going to come down to the last 10 games and how you play.”

The Capitals play the Islanders thrice, beginning Thursday night, meet the Penguins twice and the face the Bruins at home one more time. For Washington, it’s a chance to establish dominance in a top-heavy division — or take an untimely late-season tumble in the standings.

“It 100% is in our hands on how it goes down the stretch, but that can be said for the other three teams as well,” Laviolette said. “So we understand where we sit, we understand it’s going to be a battle. I think the games are going to be good for us. They’re games that have meaning, and I think that’s important at the end of the year to play games that have some meaning.”

The next three games for the Capitals will go a long way toward deciding which team wins the division. Facing the Islanders three times in a six-day span, Washington will become well-acquainted with the team level on points.

New York has seven wins in its last 10 contests yet trails the season series against the Capitals, 3-2. After moves at the trade deadline — adding forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac and defenseman Braydon Coburn — the Islanders will look different than the team Washington has faced five times.

“But I don’t think that’s going to change their philosophy, how they’re wanting to play,” Laviolette said. “So from that regard, I think it’s a little bit of an open book both ways.”

And with so much on the line, the Capitals can expect more playoff-level atmosphere down the line.

Forward Anthony Mantha, who’s scored four goals in his first four games since Washington traded for him at the deadline, noted how physical Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Bruins was.

After those the three matchups with the Islanders, Washington meets Pittsburgh for two games. 

Then the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers — hardly pushovers in their own rights — face the Capitals in two games each before Boston closes out the regular season.

“We know the next couple games are going to be [intense],” Mantha said. “So we need to be ready, we need to be prepared, and it’s always exciting to play in those kinds of games.”

When Washington won the Stanley Cup in 2018, the team entered the playoffs with eight wins in the last 10 games.  While Laviolette said ending the season well doesn’t necessarily translate to playoff success, the practice doesn’t hurt.

“We need to perform really well if we want to finish up top,” Mantha said. “It starts here, and it keeps going down the stretch.”

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