A Big Game to Start Two Big MonthsPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
Two months from today, the Caps will finish up their 2011-12 regular season slate against the Rangers in New York. Whether they play beyond that day and into the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs remains an open question. The Caps enter tonight’s big game against the Florida Panthers in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings with 58 points. Washington is just one point behind Florida for the top spot in the Southeast Division and the Caps and Panthers have three games remaining – including tonight’s contest – with two of those coming in Washington. Players will tell you they take the schedule one game at a time, and I believe that’s true for the most part. Fans and members of the media aren’t like that; we look ahead frequently. Including tonight, the Capitals have 30 games remaining this season, 15 at home and 15 on the road. Five of those road games will come against the top three teams in the Eastern Conference: two in New York against the Rangers, two in Boston and one in Philadelphia. Two more – at Chicago and at Detroit – will come against elite Western Conference clubs. After going a span 65 days from late November to late January with just two sets of back-to-back games, the Capitals are now in the midst of a more rugged stretch of scheduling. Coming out of the all-star break, Washington has 14 games in 26 days. It has five sets of back-to-backs in that span. After home games this week against Southeast Division foes Florida and Winnipeg, the Caps face a difficult set of back-to-backs this weekend. They travel to New York to take on the Rangers on Sunday and then return home to host San Jose on Monday. A four-game road trip follows that game against San Jose; the Caps have won just seven of their last 24 (7-14-3) on the road. They’ll also play five straight on the road in the middle of March. Between now and the NHL’s Feb. 27 trading deadline, the Caps will play 10 games, four at home and six on the road. The deadline is likely to be a lot quieter for the Capitals this season than in recent campaigns. Washington simply does not have the salary cap room needed to add significant parts at the deadline unless it also moves out a salary similar to the one(s) it would be taking on. Hoping that they can get Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom back healthy for the stretch run appears to be the Caps’ equivalent to a trade-deadline acquisition this season. Washington has a total of 60 points available to it the rest of the way. If the Caps were to run the table and win all 30, they’d still finish with fewer standings points than they had in 2009-10 when they skated off with the Presidents’ Trophy. Given the NHL’s policy of awarding loser points to teams that lose hockey games, it’s hard to say how many points the Caps will need to eke out a playoff berth this season. Washington is currently playing at a pace that would lead to a 91- or 92-point season. In the six seasons since the lockout – and the advent of the three-point game – only one team has snuck into the playoffs with fewer than 91 points: the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens. That’s the team, of course, that reminded the Caps just how much that Presidents’ Trophy meant when it rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit to issue a stunning ouster of Washington in the first round of the playoffs. One team has made the dance with 91 points. Two have gotten in with 92. No team has won a division with fewer than 94 points since the 2005-06 season; Washington took the Southeast crown with 94 points in 2007-08, the fewest of any division titlist in the post-lockout era. Somehow, the Caps are likely going to need to pick up the pace, get on a bit of a roll and find a way to get to the clubhouse with 95-100 points. A fourth straight 100-point season? Odds seem long. The Caps would need to finish with a 21-9 flourish.
Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz played his first NHL game on Dec. 22, 2006 against the New Jersey Devils. He was 20 years old at the time. Schultz ended up playing most of the second half of the season with the Caps in 2006-07, posting a respectable plus-5 mark on a team that posted a dismal 11-23-7