SPORTS

With five playoff contenders on schedule, Capitals are facing 'perfect' test

04/01/2015 11:22 EDT | Updated 06/01/2015 05:59 EDT
WASHINGTON - Bring on the big boys for some big-boy hockey. That's how the Washington Capitals are preparing for a brutal end to the regular season.

After playing the playoff-bound Nashville Predators and New York Rangers over the weekend, with a visit from the Carolina Hurricanes in between, the Capitals finish their season against five teams that have already clinched a playoff spot or are in the picture.

"If we make it to the playoffs, these are the teams you're going to face," centre Nicklas Backstrom said. "I think it's perfect for us. We've got to fight to get into the playoffs, and you play against playoff teams. It's perfect."

After beating the Rangers and Hurricanes, the Capitals have 94 points and are in good shape to make it. But with the Montreal Canadiens up next Thursday night at Bell Centre and the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins and Rangers still to come, it's a rough road to April 15.

Coach Barry Trotz doesn't mind.

"Those games will help us stay prepared," Trotz said Saturday morning at Verizon Center. "I think the harder games are some of the teams that are out because they start cheating and they got nothing to lose. I think having opponents that force you to play a high-level game can only help us."

After Alex Ovechkin and Backstrom, his usual centre, hit a bit of a scoring slump at five-on-five, the Capitals broke out with new line combinations over the past two games. Ovechkin scored three goals and added an assist to reach 50 goals and 77 points for the season.

Led by Ovechkin, a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate whose case may rate only behind Montreal goaltender Carey Price, Washington is in the first Eastern Conference wild-card spot and just a point back of the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division.

"We have a chance to finish second in our division, not seventh in the conference. It's really jam packed," Trotz said. "We'd like to finish as high as we can here."

Where the Capitals finish and who they face in the first round — it could be the Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, Rangers, Islanders or Penguins — depends on how they navigate the rest of their schedule. Everyone left has something to play for.

The Canadiens are fighting to finish first in the Atlantic Division, the Senators and Bruins to get into the playoffs, the Red Wings to stay in a spot and the Rangers to earn home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"It's a good challenge," Washington defenceman Mike Green said. "You face a little bit of adversity playing some good teams, and I think that's a good challenge for us moving forward in the playoffs. We've got to make sure that we get our points here in our games and we're playing the best hockey we possibly can."

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