Capitals face Canadiens as complacency becomes toughest foe
Washington on track for most single-season wins in NHL history
It isn't a slight against the Montreal Canadiens, who are 9-23-2 since a 19-4-3 start to the NHL season.
Whether they're playing the Eastern Conference-leading Florida Panthers or sputtering Canadiens, complacency is the biggest opponent for the Washington Capitals.
That's life when you're the league's top dog and on pace to break Detroit's record for most wins in a season at 62, set in the 1995-96 season.
As his 44-10-4 Capitals prepare for Wednesday's visit by the Canadiens (7 p.m. ET), head coach Barry Trotz will continue to find ways to get his charges through the "dog days of February." Washington enters the game with a comfortable 18-point advantage over its closest competitor in the Metropolitan Division, the New York Rangers, with two games in hand.
.<a href="https://twitter.com/washcaps">@washcaps</a> have the most wins through 58 games of any team in NHL history <a href="https://t.co/EKHcitz727">pic.twitter.com/EKHcitz727</a>—@ESPNStatsInfo
"I want to say it's as easy as, 'Hey, you know, we're up by 25 points, let's go get them!'" Trotz told reporters. Fighting off natural complacency is a big challenge while getting an opponent's best effort.
But will Montreal's best effort be enough to handle a Capitals outfit that is 17-1-1 in its last 19 games at Verizon Center?
This one could get ugly.
Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien won't have defencemen Jeff Petry (lower-body injury), Nathan Beaulieu (lower body) and Tom Gilbert (season-ending knee surgery) at his disposal.
That's never good when you're facing a top-ranked Washington offence that averages 3.29 goals per game and boasts the NHL's leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechhin (39), who needs one goal to become the 10th NHL player with eight or more 40-goal seasons. Evgeni Kuznetsov (62 points), Ovechkin (55) and Nicklas Backstrom (54) are also among the top 15 in league scoring.
But, as winger Justin Williams reminded fans, the Capitals refuse to look past any opponent.
"We're trying to get better every game, we're trying to nit-pick and get all the crap out of our games that we don't like that's not going to work come playoff time and just see where it takes us," he said.
Despite his team's success — Washington has a 99 per cent chance of winning the Presidents' Trophy as the team with the most points, according to hockeyviz.com — Trotz is experimenting with different forward combinations. And goalie Braden Holtby, with his NHL-leading 38 wins and 2.17 goals-against average, is unlikely to get much rest down the stretch.
The Capitals aren't perfect. Their power play remains No. 1 with a 23.2 per cent success rate, despite the fact it has converted only five of its previous 43 chances, and they have allowed the first goal in 12 of their past 15 games.
On Dec. 3, the Canadiens began a stretch of 10 defeats in 11 starts with a 3-2 loss to visiting Washington while Holtby's 29-save performance keyed a 3-1 Capitals victory over Montreal at the Verizon Center on Dec. 26.
"It doesn't matter what you're playing for," forward Brendan Gallagher, who has 16 goals and 33 points in 43 games, told the Canadiens website. "I think you go into every game with the mindset you want to win the hockey game. That's the thing we're really trying to focus on right now, is having a winning mentality."