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Justin Williams knows from missing the playoffs twice with defending Stanley Cup champions just how difficult it is to make it to the postseason, which is why the Metropolitan Division standings have his full attention.
"I see our division, I see everyone winning," the Washington Capitals right winger said. "The top eight in the East is going to be tough to get in this year. We plan to be at the top."
Even for the Capitals, who ran away with the division, the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the Presidents' Trophy last season, that's easier said than done. They're on pace for 112 points, which would leave them in third place because the Metropolitan is home to five of the top eight teams in the NHL.
Since Dec. 3, Metro teams are an astounding 28-7-3, led by the Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, red-hot Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets, and streaking Capitals. The Flyers have won a league-best nine in a row, the Blue Jackets six and the Penguins five, so the Capitals' four-game winning streak doesn't have them moving up the standings.
"Win them all if you can," coach Barry Trotz said. "You have a bad day, you could fall like three or four spots. You could go from being a wild-card team to not being in the playoffs to being second in your division if you win."
The competition is so hot that the New York Islanders are still in last place despite winning six of their last 10 and the New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes are five and seven points out of the last playoff spot in the East. At the top of the division, the Penguins, Rangers, Flyers, Blue Jackets and Capitals have combined to win their last 27 games.
"Everyone's playing at a high level," Rangers center Derek Stepan said. "There's no room. We're in our playoff push."
No team has pushed toward the playoffs harder than the Flyers, who were 13th in the East before their run began Nov. 27. Philadelphia has risen to fifth in the East behind 15 points from Jakub Voracek, a .930 save percentage from goaltender Steve Mason and a strong power play and penalty kill.
Coach Dave Hakstol said the Flyers are finding different ways to win games, as evidenced by them beating the Edmonton Oilers 6-5 and then a few days later the Detroit Red Wings 1-0 in overtime.
"I think we're playing better defensively as a team," said Voracek, who has 32 points and trails only Edmonton's Connor McDavid in the NHL scoring race. "When we're making mistakes, Mason is playing unreal ... I think as an overall game we got better not only over the winning streak but in the games before. We lost the games when we should've won earlier in the year and now we're winning them. It's a good sign."
The Penguins have avoided the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover thanks to Sidney Crosby's league-leading 20 goals in his first 22 games. As Henrik Lundqvist sits, Rangers backup goalie Antti Raanta has won three consecutive starts with a 0.33 goals-against average and .984 save percentage.
After losing four of its first six games, Columbus is rolling under coach John Tortorella. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is among the league leaders with a .932 save percentage and 1.98 GAA this season, and forward Cam Atkinson has 27 points in 26 games.
"Everybody's bought in," Columbus center Brandon Dubinsky, who also played for Tortorella in New York. "I would venture to say he's probably the most fair coach as far as time off and days off and treating the players with respect and giving them their space and just allowing them to focus on one thing and one thing only, which is the 60 minutes ahead of them and the game. It's a two-way street with him, and I think it's allowed us to excel."
Meanwhile, the Capitals shrugged off some early-season malaise, and Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Braden Holtby said, "We're realizing a little bit more who we are." Three-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin snapped a seven-game goal drought Sunday, but Nicklas Backstrom and others are picking up the slack.
Defenseman Karl Alzner isn't surprised by the Metropolitan might.
"We all knew that when the divisions got made that ours was going to be really hard and it wasn't as hard as it could've been, I think, the last few years," Alzner said. "I think we're finally getting to see what the Metropolitan is all about."
Asked if Washington getting tested by a tougher division could help come playoff time after running away with it last year, Williams simply shrugged and said, "Maybe." His coach definitely thinks so, or at least that the Metropolitan being this good isn't a bad thing for any team that makes the postseason.
"I think competition makes you better," Trotz said. "I think the quality in the Metro this year is terrific. That'll make all the teams better, not only ours. It's a good challenge, and I think it prepares you just to have some consistency in your game. If you don't, then you'll fall out."
AP Sports Writers Vin A. Cherwoo in New York and Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .