Caps Don't Need to Win, But it Wouldn't HurtPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
When the Buffalo Sabres put away the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime of their Friday night game, it clinched the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings for the Capitals. It also rendered tonight’s season finale with the Florida Panthers as virtually meaningless. Washington is likely to rest some regulars and spread some ice time around, treating this game as what it is: an exhibition game, a chance for a few regulars to catch their breath and heal some bumps and bruises, and a final tune-up before the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway this week. For Florida, the game presents a chance to go out on a winning note and not have the scepter of a season-ending 11-game losing streak hanging over them all summer. The Panthers have already clinched the basement level of the Eastern Conference standings, the first time in franchise history they’ve sunk that far even with 10 straight playoff misses. The Caps defeated the Panthers 5-2 at Verizon Center on Wednesday. Washington didn’t play its best hockey in that game, but it was playing its second game in as many nights. “It’s kind of [about] how you play,” says caps winger Mike Knuble. “We won the game the other day, but I don’t think we played great, especially the first period when we were pretty much outworlked. Here’s a chance to turn the tables and outwork them at home. They played last night, too, so that should help us. “Things are kind of decided in our conference, except for who we’re playing. We can come down and have fun and be loose as a group, but when it comes time to play, we have to do our jobs a little bit better.” Win or lose tonight, and the Caps are going into the postseason on a roll and as one of the league’s hottest teams. The Capitals are 16-2-1 in their last 19 games, and if that were to be blemished with a loss tonight, the record still stands as an impressive one. Washington has won four straight games overall coming into tonight’s game. They have a chance to carry a five-game winning streak into the postseason, to go along with a 17-2-1 spree in their last 20 regular season tilts. Or, they could go in having lost their last game. “I think aesthetically it looks better going in on a five-game winning streak,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “But I don’t think in the overall scheme of things that it would make a difference next Wednesday on what you do today. We’re a group, we want to win every game we play. Every time we have a competition, we want to win. It’s a thing that’s born into you, I guess. We want to win tonight.” A five-game winning streak and the 17-2-1 record carries a bit more cache and swagger than losing the last game of the season to the worst club in the conference. “We have to go into the playoffs with momentum and not with bad habits,” says Caps winger Matt Bradley, “and that can happen in games like this. Standings-wise, it doesn’t mean anything but I think as far as how our team is playing and our mindset going into the playoffs, it’s a big game for us. “We’re going to have to bear down and play well, because they’re going to want to play well, too. It’s their last game of the year and they want to make a good impression on everybody. It will be a lot tougher game than people will expect tonight.” Does that momentum carry over at all and make a difference early in the playoffs? It might. The Caps went 15-4 in their final 19 games of 2007-08, with wins in 11 of their last 12 and in seven straight victories to close out the season. Despite trailing Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series with Philadelphia by a 4-2 count after 40 minutes, Washington roared from behind to score three in the third and won it, 5-4. Sure, the Caps needed to win every game they won that season just to slip into the playoffs. But who’s to say that momentum and that good feeling from winning seven straight didn’t have a positive effect on the Caps in Game 1 against Philly? Washington was 10-3-2 in its last 15 games of the 2008-09 season, piling up 108 points in the process. But the Caps lost the season finale to Florida 7-4, right here in Sunrise. Goaltender Jose Theodore gave up six goals (the seventh was an empty-netter), and that couldn’t have been good for his or the team’s confidence going into the postseason. “We haven’t played as well as we would have liked in recent games,” then-Capitals defenseman Brian Pothier told us after that loss in Sunrise. “I’m not sure the reason for that. But now we have to look forward.” The Caps lost the first two games of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series on home ice and had to storm back from a 3-1 series deficit to move on to the second round. Last season, the Caps finished with 121 points, easily the best mark in franchise history and their first ever first Presidents’ Trophy finish. They were a dominant 30-4-7 over the season’s second half, and they finished up on a 13-2-5 run in their final 20 games. But they lost the season finale in a shootout to Boston, 4-3. Once again, the Caps dropped the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series opener on home ice and made a goaltending switch in Game 2 for the second time in as many springs. Washington was less than two minutes from going down 2-0 in the series on home ice for the second straight spring until John Carlson’s game-tying goal and Nicklas Backstrom’s overtime game-winner altered the script. The end result, of course, was a first-round ouster at the hands of the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. The Caps don’t need to win tonight’s game. But they should feel like they need to win it.
Washington’s 2011 quest for the Stanley Cup starts with an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series against the New York Rangers. The NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs get underway on Wednesday, April 13 and the Caps will be in action on opening night. They’ll host the Rangers at 7:30 p.m. at Verizon