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Maintaining intensity now the biggest focus for the Capitals

Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals have had much to celebrate so far, but their success is now beginning to work against them. Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Capitals went curling in Ottawa on Monday.

These are words I never thought I'd write.

"It was really good," said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, chuckling over the phone Monday evening. "We had a wide range of talent level. The Alberta and Saskatchewan guys did pretty well, and the rest of us were mixed, from awful to some natural athletes. It was great. It got a little competitive at the end."

It's those competitive juices that the Caps are trying to keep flowing until the end of a rather meaningless string of regular-season games. These are the dog days of the season for a team that long ago fortified its first-place seeding. Its challenge before playing its next meaningful game in mid-April is to not lose its mojo before then. Washington looked awful in a 6-2 beatdown at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday.

"Honestly, I think we've been trying to fight through it for a while already," said Niskanen, whose Caps face the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday. "And we've struggled with it at times, finding motivation, to really have that second and third kind of effort that you need to win; the high-compete puck battles. Guys are working hard and playing the right way for the most part, we're trying to do the right things, but in games you really, really, really need to win, you find that second and third effort all over the ice.

"That kind of hasn't been there at times in the last few weeks. We've been fighting that. That's going to be the biggest thing -- how do we get our battle level up to playoff level in the last 11 games? Or at least close to playoff level so Game 1 isn't such a shock.''

Pure honesty there from Niskanen. Hockey players can say all the right things and respect the process and adhere to the system and everything else, but when there's no real carrot at the end of the stick, there are times during this part of the season when that extra kick just isn't there.

"I think in terms of style of play and system, we've got good habits," Niskanen said. "We've just got to continue to push ourselves as far as the compete level. Loose pucks, being physical, all those things, just so we're ready when Game 1 comes.''

It is such a unique situation to be in -- especially in the salary-cap era of the crushed-beer-can standings -- to be so far ahead of the pack when everyone else is so jammed up, and also to be almost penalized for it with a March schedule that presents zero challenge.

I mean, which of the other 29 teams wouldn't want to be sitting with 107 points and a 17-point lead atop the conference with three weeks to go? And yet, it presents a whole other dynamic. How do you stay engaged and try to fool yourself into having that sense of urgency when you know the next game that really matters is in mid-April?

"You're right, it's really hard to have that mental urgency it takes to do the same when there's not something really on the line like a playoff game or fighting to get into the playoffs," said Niskanen. "That's hard to fabricate, really. I think what we have to do is know what our goals are as far [as] the big picture goes and push ourselves internally to play at a higher level, and higher and higher, as we get to the remaining games so we're trying to peak at the right time.''

The danger, of course, is when the Caps' first playoff game comes next month, it will be against the lowest seed in the conference, a team that will have scratched and clawed for two months just to get in; a team that will have already have been experiencing playoff-style hockey for a while.

Washington will roll in trying to flip the switch back on.

The benefit for this uber-talented Caps team is that it has a bunch of veteran players who will ensure the group is ready.

"We've got guys who have been in this situation before," said Niskanen, a former Penguins blueliner. "I have been here before, where your position in the standings really isn't going to change for the playoffs. And then the playoffs come and you're like, 'Holy smokes, this is a whole different animal' in the first couple of games, and your level isn't quite as high as the other team, which has been desperate for a month to get in. So, you know that. We've got some guys who have won, Justin Williams, Mike Richards and Brooks Orpik, they know what it takes, the kind of level you need to be at.

"Then we've got other guys that have been in the playoffs a bunch but haven't had the level of success that we want to have this year. Those hurtful times might still be in the memory bank and maybe we can use some of that as motivation to keep pushing here.''

The Caps players are also fully aware of how some of their fans are feeling. The Caps' faithful have seen this movie before many times and it has always ended with playoff heartbreak.

To me, this Caps team is so different than other Caps teams of the salary-cap era. I just don't see the same kind of flame-out with this squad. This is a balanced lineup that can beat you in many different ways. Thing is, none of that matters until they go out and do it. That's the truism of sport.

The other reality in the NHL is parity, and come mid-April it won't matter how many points the Capitals are ahead at the end of the regular season.

"I don't see anything wrong with that team, they deserve to be where they are," said a rival Eastern Conference hockey exec. "But the reality is also that it doesn't matter how many points they're ahead come playoff time. This league is so close. Every team is tough to beat come playoff time. Can they win? Sure. But if they lose I wouldn't feel like it was because of their past. It's because this league has so much parity."

"Everybody knows that the game changes come the first round," Niskanen said. "It doesn't matter if you led everyone else in the league by 30 points. Because those seven other teams [in the conference] are pretty good darn teams. You might run into a hot goalie or whatever.

"So you need to play well, you need to play hard, you need good goaltending, you need breaks. You got to be playing hot at the right time no matter what kind of regular season you had.''

Truth.