Caps return from West Coast swing hungry for more

ARLINGTON, Va. — By the time March Madness ends, the NHL playoffs will just about be ready to begin. So, you’re forgiven if your attention may be diverted from what the Capitals are doing.

They just finished a four-game road trip that started in Boston and went through Anaheim, L.A. and San Jose, going 2-1-1.

Three of those teams were in first place in their respective divisions when they played the Caps and the Sharks are just three points back. All four will make the playoffs, so it’s the kind of competition the Capitals will be facing every game starting next month.

But despite picking up five points, defenseman Karl Alzner says they have mixed feelings about the trip.

“We expected to do better,” he said at practice Monday at Kettler Ice Complex. “Those are the teams we need to beat, so that’s why we’re a little frustrated about it.”

The bar has certainly been set high for this team. The Capitals return home Tuesday to face Carolina with 103 points. That’s by far the most in the NHL, 17 points better than the Bruins in the East and 12 more than Dallas and St. Louis in the West, all while playing two fewer games than those three teams.

While it may be jarring to see them lose two of their last four games, the Caps have been very consistent all season. They’ve had at least six more wins than regulation losses every month this season. They would appear to be on that same pace with a 4-1-2 record so far in March.

That success has been all about balance. The Capitals are second in the NHL in scoring and third in goals against. They’re the only team within the top five on both sides of special teams, with the top power play unit in the league and the fourth-best on the penalty kill.

Alex Ovechkin leads the league in goals, Nicklas Backstrom is tops in power play assists, Evgeny Kuznetsov is sixth in scoring, and Braden Holtby has 41 goaltender wins while nobody else has more than 35.

Justin Williams scored his 20th goal on Saturday, making him the fourth Capital to reach that mark. The last time the team had that many 20-goal scorers was 2010, when the Caps also had the best record in the league.

And still, they’re not satisfied.

“We want to get better,” says forward Jay Beagle. “As soon as you’re not trying to get better, you’re gonna start sliding and get complacent and get worse. So we’re always trying to get better and work on our game, and get stronger as individuals and as a team.”

One area the Capitals are very aware they need to improve is their starts. They have given up the first goal in more than half their games. Coach Barry Trotz knows that’s not a good formula to take into the playoffs.

“Our game has slipped in some areas, so I have some concerns, first period concerns, so we have to correct those,” he says. “But, for one concern there are probably ten or twelve positives.”

How does he correct that concern?

“I’m bringing it up every day ‘til we fix it. If we take care of our own end and think less about scoring, we tend to score more. You sort of piggyback on good team defense and it usually translates into more offense for us.”

The bottom line for this Capitals team is that the losses hit harder than the wins help. That’s what helps drive them to continue to improve, no matter what the standings say.

“We hate to lose,” says Beagle.

Forward Jason Chimera goes even further.

“Anytime you hate to lose more than you like to win, it’s a good thing to have.”

That attitude in the dressing room has the Capitals in good position on the ice, in the standings and going forward.

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