Caps hopeful last 10 games will prepare them for playoffs originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
The Capitals are down to 10 games left in the regular season and, though a playoff spot looks to be well in hand, just about everything else is up for grabs. Just one point separates the first-place Caps from the third-place Pittsburgh Penguins. The Boston Bruins also loom in fourth place trailing Washington by four points but with two games in hand.
As locked in as the top four teams in the East appear to be at this point, just where each of those four teams may finish remains very much to be decided.
To make matters worse, Washington's final 10 games are no cakewalk. The Caps face a brutal schedule starting with a three-game series against the New York Islanders on Thursday (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington). After that, it is two games against Pittsburgh, two games against the New York Rangers, two games against the Philadelphia Flyers and the season-finale against Boston.
If Washington is going to win the division or even home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, it is going to have to earn it. And that's a good thing.
"They're the teams that we want to play, I think, going into the playoffs because it's going to prepare us for how we need to play once we get there," head coach Peter Laviolette said in a one-on-one interview with NBC Sports Washington's Alexa Shaw.
There have been seasons in the past where the Caps entered the final stretch of the season with virtually nothing on the line and playing a normal schedule against a wide range of teams in and out of the playoffs as well as teams from the Eastern and Western Conference. The results in the playoffs were uninspiring.
The stretch run for the Caps will give the team a chance to ramp up heading into the playoffs with meaningful games against high-quality opponents that will test them.
"There's a lot of teams in there where we're going to have to do good things and play a certain style to be successful," Laviolette said.
For Anthony Mantha, who came to the Caps at the trade deadline and has never played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, these games will be the most intense he has likely faced in his NHL career.
"It's the first time obviously for me to be in that position so it is pretty exciting," Mantha said following Wednesday's practice. "I know we have 10 games left so we need to perform really well if we want to finish up top. We need to bring it every night and have three huge games against New York coming up. It starts here and then keeps going down the stretch."
The Caps have won three out of five games against New York this season, but the Islanders have won the last two, one of which was an 8-4 blowout on April 1.
New York is known for being a well-coached team that sticks to its defensive system and makes life tough for opposing offenses. It also added offensive depth at the trade deadline with Kyle Palmieri and Zach Parise.
"Just the style of play they actually play, going to be a low-scoring game probably and we're going to have to battle hard to get in their zone," Mantha said. "I think they sit back and they just wait for those unforced turnovers. We will need to play smart with the puck and we'll have to maybe chip it down and battle hard to get it back and try to create things offensively. Obviously defensively we'll have to be strong. They have great players on that team so hopefully we could try and shut them down as much as we can and come out on top at the end of those three games."
The Caps and Islanders sit tied for first in the East with 62 points. This three-game series will go a long way towards determining who wins the division, but it is also just the start of a tough stretch for Washington, one that the team hopes will get them ready for a deep championship run.
Said Laviolette: "I think it's important that we play that style and we play that playoff mindset, that physicality, that battle-ready hockey that you're going to need to play once you get [to the playoffs]."