The Washington Capitals are playing brilliantly and appear ready for a season-ending run at the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have dominated the Patrick Division -- and the entire NHL -- most of the season.
But because the Capitals played well last season before self-destructing in the playoffs, a couple of questions take the edge off their seven-game winning streak.
What difference does it make that this team is playing well now? Why not just rest up for the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Capitals general manager David Poile knows that no matter what the Capitals do, they will be second-guessed until they win the Stanley Cup.
"Our job is to play 84 regular-season games," said Poile. "As long as I'm running it, we will play every game to win. To catch Pittsburgh and win the Patrick Division title this season would be a tremendous accomplishment."
But the Capitals won the Patrick Division in 1989-90, only to be swept by the Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference championship. Last year, the second-place Capitals were knocked out in the first round by the Penguins after leading three games to one. The Penguins went on to win the Cup.
"This is like a conversation I have with my kids," Poile said. "They're always saying 'What if, Daddy?' It's a hard game to play. In the long run, yes, the playoffs are everything. But you're not going to do well in the playoffs if you don't come together as a team in the regular season."
Since the All-Star break three weeks ago, the Capitals have been coming together nicely. Their seven-game winning streak includes five wins in a row on the road. They are in Boston today to face the Bruins, and then return to the Capital Centre tomorrow for a 1:40 p.m. game with Pittsburgh.
The Capitals are 10 games over .500 for the first time this season, thanks to Tuesday's 4-2 victory at Nassau Coliseum against the New York Islanders. That game was the first of 15 that Washington will play against division rivals down the stretch.
"We'll know a whole lot more about how we're doing on Sunday," said Poile. "The questions for us are how are we doing against the Penguins, against the Flyers, against the teams in our division. People are asking how we're going to do in the playoffs, and I'm still worrying about whether we're going to make the playoffs."
The Capitals have been the hottest team in the NHL since Nov. 20, with a 25-10-5 record. Although they are 10-11-2 against Patrick Division teams, they are 9-4-2 against the division since Nov. 20.
Rumors persist, however, that Poile and coach Terry Murray would like to find a go-to scorer. Names such as the Hartford Whalers' Pat Verbeek, who has scored more than 40 goals in two of the past three seasons and has 24 goals and 33 assists this season, keep popping up.
"If someone wants to give us a big scorer, we'll take him," Poile said. "But I'd be surprised if we made a big deal like that [before the March 20 trading deadline]. As I said, I'm pleased with and proud of the way our team is playing. We're entertaining. We compete. We're competitive. And overall, I don't think the players we have get enough credit for the ability they have."