by David Elfin

Give the Capitals credit. After another of their trademark slow starts, they have been playing well for a month, having continued the 5-2-1 surge they mounted before the 18-day Olympic break with a 7-4-2 record since. That includes the just-concluded 2-0-1 road trip to the formidable trio of Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.

The latter victory ended a losing streak in the Shark Tank that had lasted longer than rookies Connor Carrick and Tom Wilson have been alive and raised Washington’s mark to 12-6-3 in its last 21 games.

“We’re pretty happy with the way things have gone over the last five games [4-0-1] at least,” said defenseman Karl Alzner. “If [the spurt] came any later, we’d be in trouble. We have a little bit of a swagger. We’re in a good place right now, mentally.”

And yet, the Caps still find themselves on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff picture with just 10 games remaining. Washington is in ninth place with 79 points, one behind seventh-place Detroit, which has a game in hand, and eighth-place Toronto, which had played one more game than the guys who rock the red.

The good news for the Caps is that their remaining foes are a little easier than the gauntlet they’ve run so far this month with 11 of 12 games having come against currently playoff-bound teams. After tonight’s rematch with the Kings at Verizon Center and Saturday’s visit from league-leading Boston, Washington plays just three more teams – Western Conference leader St. Louis, defending champion Chicago and Tampa Bay — that, as of now, will be skating for a chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup come June.

The Caps’ other five remaining games are against Carolina, the New York Islanders and Ottawa, all of which will be golfing come mid-April, as well as Dallas and New Jersey, both of whom are also battling to reach postseason. However, the Caps lost their last meetings with the Hurricanes and Islanders — both on home ice — and always struggle against the Senators.

Since Washington has made the playoffs six years running, only captain Alex Ovechkin and defenseman John Erskine and Mike Green have played for a Caps team that has failed to do so. There’s a certain expectation in the dressing room at Kettler Iceplex that isn’t found at Redskins Park, Nationals Park or in the Wizards’ locker room at Verizon. But the once-dominant Caps have also become used to qualifying in the final days so they know they can’t take any game, or even any lead, for granted.

“There’s a little bit more intensity now,” Alzner said. “Even when we’re up some goals, we’re still trying to play like we’re down. If they score a goal, we’re mad on the bench, but not dejected. It’s a way better attitude.”

After years of sniper Ovechkin skating with sweet-passing center Nicklas Backstrom, coach Adam Oates has broken up that combination to put his co-scoring leaders on different lines. The defensive-minded Jay Beagle is now centering the first unit with Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 46 goals, and Marcus Johansson on the wings. Backstrom is now between Troy Brouwer and new Russian import Evgeny Kuznetsov.

“Beags’ tenacity and not looking for a pretty play is good for JoJo and Alex and vice-versa,” Oates said. “If they can tap into a little bit of Beags making some plays for them, it can be a win-win. It’s good for every player to broaden … their game. It’s good to have moments in the game where you’re going to dump [the puck] in, go forecheck and believe that you’re going to score goals based on that.”

Oates is happy that his reworked top line is spending more time in the offensive zone than it had been before the change of centers.

“Our chemistry in the lines has looked good,” said Oates, who might have Mikhail Grabovski back as soon as Saturday from the sprained ankle that has sidelined the talented center for all but one of the past 21 games. “We kept [our] goals-against down against three pretty good, explosive teams [allowing just five goals in 190 minutes]. And I thought our 5-on-5 play was really good. It makes it a difficult matchup for the other coach.”

But Oates remains wary of what lies ahead.

“The first game back from a long trip is usually a tough one,” Oates said. “L.A. [and] Boston, they don’t give you anything. You’ve gotta work for every single thing you get. If you don’t have that attitude, you’re going to get spanked. It could be a 1-0 game. If we win 1-0, I’m going to be happy. It’s got to be that mentality. If that affects a little bit of production, I’ve got no problem with it.”

If the Caps keep surging and clinch their seventh straight playoff spot, no one in Washington will have a problem with anything that happened during yet another maddeningly inconsistent season.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.


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