Capitals become first to clinch playoff berth: Three things to know

It was a big night for the Washington Capitals, who bounced back from a rough stretch of the schedule to defeat the hot Tampa Bay Lightning for point No. 100 and assure themselves a playoff berth for the third straight season.

T.J. Oshie scored a hat trick for the Caps, who hit the 100-point mark for the third straight season. Here are three things to know:

1. Confirming another playoff ticket needs to be the start of an upswing for the Caps

Earning a postseason berth was the best thing to happen to Washington this week. That sounds silly, maybe, but it’s obvious and worth noting considering the rough 5-5 stretch that preceded the Caps’ big night. In fact, solid arguments could recently have been made that Washington did not deserve its long-held position atop the NHL, but the team also deserves credit for mostly dominating its way to the peak of a talented Eastern Conference.

Still, getting another guaranteed route to the playoffs needs to be the beginning of a momentous stretch for the Capitals if they want to shed their label as merely regular-season kings. With less than two weeks’ worth of games left, it’s go time.

2. The Chicago Blackhawks are probably up next -- and more dangerous

The playoff picture is really going to start taking shape here, and Chicago, blazing toward the finish line with an 8-2 record over its last 10 contests and four straight wins under its belt, is a sure bet to lock up a postseason bid in the near future.

As it stands, Patrick Kane and Co. own a five-point advantage over their closest competitor -- and fierce rival -- in the Western Conference, the Minnesota Wild. And the Blackhawks, with 97 points after Saturday, boast the top winning streak of any conference foe, not to mention a killer offense that should be as favored as anyone to go deep in the playoffs. Current projected match-ups have Chicago set to square off with the Nashville Predators to kick things off.

3. The time for the true contenders to show themselves is now

Believe it. Teams are getting to the home stretch of their regular-season calendars, and eyes are inevitably shifting to the kickoff of the playoffs as the Capitals -- and soon other clubs -- secure berths. So there’s truly no time to waste when it comes to leaving it all on the ice. It all sounds cliche, yes, but there’s no sport quite like hockey that unfolds or is influenced by quick-twitch changes in momentum.

We don’t know if Washington is a true contender (despite on-paper numbers that suggest they would be), but we soon will. 

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