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It wasn't long ago that a playoff spot seemed to be in jeopardy for the Washington Capitals.
Now all signs point toward a fifth straight Southeast Division title.
The Capitals look to make it eight straight wins at home and extend their dominance over the New York Islanders when the teams meet Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.
Since losing their first two games after Bruce Boudreau was fired Nov. 28 and replaced by Dale Hunter, the Capitals have gone 12-6-1 in their past 19 contests, winning seven of nine.
With first-place Florida cooling off and Tampa Bay among the league's worst teams, another division title appears to be well within Washington's grasp. A top-three seed would be a nice accomplishment for the Capitals (24-17-2) after they weren't even among the Eastern Conference's top eight teams as recently as last week.
"In past years, they were cruising through the regular season and never got through the challenge (of the playoffs)," said goaltender Tomas Vokoun, in his first season with the Caps. "This year it looks like it's going to be a fight for the playoffs until the end, and it's almost like those teams who are fighting for a long time, they're ready for the playoffs."
Vokoun was most responsible for Washington's seventh straight home win, making a season-high 43 saves Sunday in a 2-1 victory over Carolina that tied the team with the Panthers. Florida has a one-point lead after Monday's shootout loss.
"Maybe the struggles were the best thing for us to realize what we needed to do," Vokoun said.
Hunter's club hasn't trailed at any point during the seven-game home win streak, outscoring opponents 21-8 during that stretch.
Vokoun has won six straight home starts and is 14-3-0 with a 2.03 goals-against average at the Verizon Center this season. Vokoun isn't likely to get any rest Tuesday since he's 10-0-0 with a 1.49 GAA and four shutouts lifetime against the Islanders (16-21-6).
However, success in this series has been common for Washington regardless of goaltender. The Capitals are 11-1-1 in the past 13 meetings, with that regulation loss coming at Nassau Coliseum on Nov. 5.
The schedule maker continues to be kind to the Capitals, who will face a fourth consecutive opponent playing the second half of a back-to-back scenario.
The first half of that back-to-back didn't go well for the Islanders, who allowed goals on the game's first two shots in a 3-1 loss to visiting Nashville on Monday afternoon. John Tavares scored a late goal for New York, which has lost four of six.
"We had a slow start today, and that's kind of an understatement. It cost us the game," captain Mark Streit said.
Nashville's quick start came against Kevin Poulin, who was sent to Bridgeport of the AHL after the game.
"You can't blame the goalie. He made some really big saves," Streit said. "It's just that the guys in front of him weren't ready to play the first 20 minutes."
Evgeni Nabokov figures to be back in net for the Islanders after recording his 300th career win in Saturday's 4-2 victory over Buffalo. Nabokov is 9-1-0 with a 2.18 GAA against the Capitals, but all those games came with San Jose.
Tavares' goal extended his career-best point streak to nine games. The All-Star has five goals and 11 assists during the run.
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