WASHINGTON -- For weeks, nay for years, the punch line in the Eastern Conference is that if you didn't finish first, you might as well finish sixth. Your prize would most likely be a first-round date with the winner of the Southeast Division and, even without home-ice advantage, a great shot at the conference semis.
The New Jersey Devils finished sixth last year and made it past the Florida Panthers on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. There were worse spots that you could finish like, say, fifth.
This season, the reward for sixth place will again likely be the champion from the Southeast, But it's shaping up to be anything but a prize.
The Washington Capitals, who were at the closest to rock bottom that this franchise has been in many years early this season, are the hottest thing going in the NHL. Which is really, really hot. With a dominating 5-1 win on Tuesday night over the Toronto Maple Leafs -- a team with 13 points in the previous 14 games -- the Caps ran their winning streak to eight games.
"We honestly haven't talked about statistics, where we are, how many in a row, 'Man, we're playing good,' " Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "Yeah, we've got a good streak going, but it's important, all the little factors.
And rolling it is. Steamrolling toward the playoffs once again and what is now an eight-game win streak.
Eight really is the magic number right now, too.
The Great Eight, Alex Ovechkin, has put the great back in front of his number. He scored yet another goal on Tuesday night, a power-play goal, for his 28th of the season to extend his lead in the Rocket Richard race. He also had an assist via a Martin Erat redirection goal, Erat's first with the Caps since being acquired at the trade deadline.
"I feel good; what can I say?" Ovechkin said. I think his 18 goals in the past 16 games can attest to that.
He's also playing like a captain, something that he has been routinely criticized for not doing over the years. Yes, he's leading by example on the ice again with his production. But there was a clear example of a captain being a captain early in the game, a great and energizing sight for the Caps and Washington faithful.
With Jay McClement bearing down on Nicklas Backstrom by the benches, McClement gave Backstrom a slight shove from behind, sending Backstrom into the boards. Seeing it, Ovechkin immediately jumped on McClement, starting a big scrum in front of the Toronto bench.
"I just stepped up for my teammates," Ovechkin said. "I think everybody would do the same if it happened to me, or [Matt Hendricks] ... anybody."
Ovechkin was the only player to get a penalty on the play, but the Caps thrived on the kill. When the captain exited the box, Verizon Center was as loud as it is when the Ovi scores. In short, it was a captain being a captain and everybody loved it.
"You can hear the crowd," Ovechkin said. "The guys said they were going to kill it all day long. [Jason Chimera] did a good job jumping in and showing them you can't touch our best players. I think it showed the character of this team, and everybody cares about each other."
It's all music to Caps fans' ears. When things weren't going well, it was tough. Everybody had a theory on why the Caps weren't winning, and a lot of theories had to do with Ovechkin. But really, it was an issue for everybody.
"Obviously, when you start out 2-8, there's a little bit ... I don't know if panic is the right word, but there is definitely some soul searching when you start out 2-8," said defenseman Jack Hillen, who had the first goal of the night. "Everybody's looking around trying to find their identity on this team."
They have found it, and Ovechkin has found his, his old one. I mean, Ovechkin can do no wrong right now, even when he's taking penalties. The same can be said for the Caps; anything they do right now is going to work. The eight-game win streak illustrates that clearly.
You can give at least some of the credit to Oates. The man whom some were suggesting was on the hot seat in that dreadful start to the season despite just taking the job last offseason has this team and these players playing how he envisioned. It was a change that wasn't going to happen overnight in a shortened season that made things seem desperate, but the results have kicked in just in time.
"The lockout hurt us more than others because we had new guys, a new system, a new coach, trying to figure it out," Hillen admitted. "We got it figured out, and you're starting to see the byproduct of it. We're playing well right now."
Among the many adjustments that just needed more time was to put Ovechkin on the right wing, opposite where he had played his whole career. It forced Ovechkin to do something he needed to do -- change his game. Among other things, Ovechkin had become predictable on the left side, trying to do the same thing over and over again. The league caught on. But the move to the other wing has opened things up, and it shows.
It wasn't a new concept for Oates. He was instrumental in making the same move with Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey last season to great success.
Ovechkin has been firing on all cylinders, and now the Capitals are, too (not to completely ignore goaltender Holtby, who has been very dependable). If they can keep up this level of play -- even if it is the very definition of a hot streak that should cool down at some point -- through the rest of a home-heavy finishing stretch, they will take the tag of "team nobody wants to face" in the playoffs.
That would have been nearly impossible to imagine two months ago.