With almost a quarter of the regular season left to play, the Washington Capitals are cruising toward the playoffs and trying to find different ways to stay focused on the present.
So coach Barry Trotz took time at his team's morning meeting Tuesday to point out that the Pittsburgh Penguins could be Washington's first-round opponent. The Capitals responded to that challenge by coming back from a two-goal deficit to beat their biggest rivals 3-2 in what very well could be a playoff preview.
It was just one victory in a season full of them for the NHL-leading Capitals but a performance players hope resonates in the coming months.
"We're always trying to lay some groundwork here and put down some teams' minds," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It's just one of those teams that you really want to put down if possible. They've done a good job against us the last couple years. It's nice that we can finally be on top. Now we haven't met in the playoffs in a little while, so it'll be nice to — if we do get there at some point — know that we got some wins this year."
After spotting the Penguins a 2-0 lead on goals by Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist, Washington turned up its game and stormed back. The Caps allowed the first goal for the 15th time in the past 18 games, but then they tied it with second-period goals from Mike Richards and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen scored the winner on the power play with 6:22 left.
"We knew they were going to push back — they're a good team," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "I think the power play wins a lot of games for them."
Goaltending isn't bad either. Braden Holtby stopped 28 of the 30 shots he faced, none bigger than Carl Hagelin's attempt with 32.8 seconds left. The Penguins didn't have another quality chance, and Holtby became the first goaltender in franchise history with consecutive 40-win seasons.
Holtby insisted the Capitals aren't worried about rivalries or particular opponents, but it was difficult not to see the parallels between this early-March game and the playoffs. The Penguins occupy the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, which would put them on a crash course to see the Capitals in a seven-game series.
"They're the most likely first-round matchup based on the percentage of 33.1, I think it is, or 30.1?" Trotz said jokingly.
Forget the percentages, given there's playoff history between Sidney Crosby's Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Capitals. Newcomer Daniel Winnik watched this game and figured that the possibility of the two teams meeting in the playoffs was the reason behind the physical play and intensity.
Or maybe it's just vintage Penguins-Capitals.
"It's probably more heated than most games that we've played in since I've been here," said Richards, whose goal was his second since signing with Washington in early January. "You feel it in the dressing room, the energy before the game."
Crosby blamed some of the physicality on the Penguins' play, which dropped off significantly after dominating the first 10 minutes or so.
"I think we put ourselves in positions to get hit," Crosby said. "When you're going back for pucks continuously and you don't execute, they have an opportunity to gain speed and get those hits in. ... That's the type of hockey that it is this time of year."
This time of year is not the biggest concern for the Capitals, who again avoided losing back-to-back games in regulation after getting beaten by the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday. The Blackhawks are the biggest test, but facing the Penguins was another chance for the Capitals to think about the playoffs even with 20 games left before they arrive.
"Obviously it's hard to replicate playoff hockey," Holtby said. "I think the other night in Chicago was probably as close as we're going to get. But tonight was there. We didn't have any fallback from the other night and we came out and we played a pretty good game, as did they."
NOTES: Kuznetsov's goal was his 20th of the season, the first time he has reached that milestone in the NHL. Defenseman Mike Weber made his Capitals debut six days after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres. ... This game was rescheduled from Jan. 24 because of a snowstorm that hit the Washington area.