March 27, 2015

Slow starts have been a problem lately for the NHL-leading Washington Capitals, but their latest effort in the first period has them encouraged a change is imminent.

They had no such first-period issues in their last matchup with the Nashville Predators.

The Capitals look to continue gearing up for the playoffs by getting off to another strong start and win for the 10th time in 12 home games Friday night against the Predators.

Washington (50-14-5) clanked shots off the post against Carolina on Tuesday, but forward Jay Beagle said players didn't let frustration seep in as the Capitals went on to win 2-1 in overtime.

Slow starts have dogged the Capitals, but this wasn't one of them.

"I think it was a great start," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "So far it was the best in maybe 10 or 15 games. Just hit crossbar, post, lots of good chances. That's how we have to play."

That game against the Hurricanes, which clinched a playoff berth for Washington, represented a divergence from the lingering trend. The Capitals had allowed the first goal in the previous five games and in 13 out of the last 15.

The Capitals are 10-5-1 in their past 16 games, but in the first period, they have led only 2:16, been tied 106:41 and trailed for 210:53.

"I'm kind of sick of talking about it, but it's a stat, it's there and it's ugly," forward Justin Williams said. "I think sometimes if you just keep talking about it, talking about it and talking about, then it becomes a problem. They you can get it in your head and all sorts of other things."

It has been in players' heads because it's not an isolated issue. Opponents have outscored the Capitals 17-4 over this 16-game span, and yet the top team in the NHL has shown an uncanny ability to roar back in the third period, outscoring teams 20-9.

Yet with 13 games left in the regular season, it's not about victories or points for the Capitals as much as preparing for the playoffs. That's why the start against Carolina was so encouraging.

"We showed what we can do to start the game and set up our game," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "You look at it as we only scored two goals with the overtime goal, but we could've had quite a few more - just the posts and the tough shots we threw on net in traffic. Just didn't go our way, but we stuck with it and that shows that we played a committed game."

Falling behind in the playoffs, where games are tighter and goals are harder to come by, especially on the power play, isn't a recipe for success for a team trying to win its first Stanley Cup. If the Capitals can replicate their start against Carolina in April and May, it could pay big dividends.

"(We) didn't wait for them to kind of see how the game was going to play out," Beagle said. "We went after them and tried to dictate the pace and game in our barn, and that's the way we got to play."

Washington certainly did that at Nashville on Feb. 9, scoring the first two goals - one in the opening period - on its way to a 5-3 victory.

While the Capitals are closing in on their second Presidents' Trophy, the Predators (36-22-13) are 10 points clear of the postseason cutoff thanks to a 9-1-2 stretch.

"I really liked the way we played," coach Peter Laviolette said after Thursday's 4-2 win over the New York Islanders. "Coming off the (3-1-1) road trip, you never know what you're going to get, but I thought we were pretty sharp from start to finish."

James Neal had a goal and assist, three days after netting a hat trick in a 3-2 win at Edmonton. The right wing's 27 goals are one back of Filip Forsberg for the team lead, and he's scored nine times with five assists in 15 career meetings with Washington.

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