It may be Southeast Division title or bust for the Washington Capitals in their quest for a sixth consecutive postseason appearance, but coach Adam Oates has said his team isn't focused on the standings quite yet.
The New York Islanders, meanwhile, have become motivated by the possibility of ending the franchise's playoff drought.
One day after acquiring Martin Erat at the trade deadline, Washington looks to create a tie atop its division by earning its first victory in three tries versus visiting New York on Thursday night.
The Capitals (17-17-2) are on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, though their recent 5-1-1 surge has helped them pull within two points of Southeast-leading Winnipeg with 12 games remaining.
Alex Ovechkin had two goals and an assist and Mike Green also scored twice to help Washington overcome a two-goal first-period deficit in Tuesday's 5-3 win at Carolina.
"The team feels good and we just have to play the same way," said Ovechkin, who has scored in eight of his last nine games and has 10 goals and five assists in that stretch.
Green extended his goal-scoring streak to three games, totaling four goals and an assist in that span.
``We know where we stand and what games are most important here,' Green said.
Though Oates won't deny that, he's hoping his team isn't looking too far ahead. Given the tight nature of the playoff race, Washington may be left out if it doesn't capture the division crown.
"We have to play our hockey and just keep improving," Oates said. "We'll worry about (the standings) later."
Washington added some depth for its playoff chase, acquiring Erat from Nashville. The veteran winger spent nine-plus seasons with the Predators and had four goals and a team-high 17 assists this season.
"The (Capitals) have a great team, they just have to show it on the ice," Erat said on a conference call Wednesday night. "It's just missing a couple pieces here and (there), but they got the right chance every year. ... I really don't care if I play right or left or if I'm going to play on the first or third line. I just want to win."
The Capitals, though, may have paid a hefty price for Erat, giving up highly regarded 18-year-old forward prospect Filip Forsberg, who was selected in the first round in 2012.
It's unclear if Erat will play when Washington takes on its next challenge - knocking off the upstart Islanders, who dealt the Capitals their only regulation loss during their recent surge as John Tavares scored with 5:18 left to give New York a 3-2 road win March 26.
Tavares scored twice and Frans Nielsen added a goal and an assist in a 5-2 victory over Washington on March 9, and the Islanders will look to beat the Capitals three times in a season for the first time since 2007-08.
New York (18-16-2) helped Washington by defeating Winnipeg 5-2 on Tuesday, its fifth win in six games. The Islanders currently are tied with New Jersey for the No. 7 seed and are trying to fend off the New York Rangers as well to make their first postseason appearance since 2006-07.
"There's a long way to go," said Nielsen, who ended a 11-game goal drought. "There are still a lot of points up for grabs. It's fun where we are in the standings right now, but there's still a lot of work to do."
Tavares scored for the fifth time in six games Tuesday, and his team-best 23 goals trail only Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos' 25. The high-scoring center has never appeared in the playoffs, but coach Jack Capuano believed before the season the Islanders had a chance to make that happen.
"We talked last summer about how we wanted to play meaningful games the last month of the season," Capuano said. "We're seeing the results of doing all the little things right."
Evgeni Nabokov had Tuesday off but could be back in net for this contest. He has stopped 42 of 46 shots in winning both meetings with Washington this season and is 12-1-2 with a 2.17 goals-against average in his career versus the Capitals.
Washington likely will counter with Braden Holtby, who is 2-1-1 with a 3.44 GAA in a stretch that began with making 28 saves in the last matchup with the Islanders.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved