The Capitals woke up to a bright sunny day in South Florida on Saturday morning, and they woke up occupying the top perch in the NHL’s Southeast Division, albeit by virtue of games in hand. But as the Caps get set to drop the puck tonight against the Panthers, they’ve tumbled down to 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings.
By virtue of Winnipeg’s 4-1 home ice win over the Philadelphia Flyers this afternoon, the Caps will need two points tonight in South Florida to regain their tenuous hold on the top spot in the Southeast Division. The Jets’ win halted the team’s untimely five-game losing streak.
Washington is in South Florida to play its final Southeast Division road game ever. The Caps have played at least two and as many as four road games every season against the Panthers since Florida joined the NHL for the 1993-94 season. But starting in 2013-14, the Caps and Panthers will be operating in separate divisions for the first time since Florida came into the league.
The Caps have taken each of the first three meetings between the two clubs this season, winning twice and Verizon Center and once in South Florida, outscoring the Cats by a combined count of 18-6 in the process.
Caps forward Brooks Laich did not accompany the team to South Florida. He left Thursday’s game with the New York Islanders in the middle of the third period and is day-to-day with a lower body injury according to Caps coach Adam Oates.
Oates says that Laich’s current ailment is not a re-aggravation of the lower body injury that kept him out of action for the first 28 games of the 2012-13 season.
“He’s sore all over just from playing so much since he got back and fighting through it,” says Oates. “I think we just need to give him a little rest.”
Jason Chimera, a healthy scratch on Thursday against the Isles, will draw back into the Washington lineup tonight in Laich’s stead. Newly acquired left wing Martin Erat will slide up to the portside of the second line where Laich had been playing with Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer.
Chimera will skate on the left side of a trio with Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle.
Entering tonight’s tilt, the Caps are riding a six-game road streak in which they’ve collected at least a point (5-0-1). It’s the Caps’ longest such streak in more than two years. Washington won six straight road games from Feb. 20-March 15, 2011, winning five of the six by a single goal and taking one of the six in overtime and one in a shootout.
The last time the Caps pulled at least a point from as many as seven straight road contests was a seven-game run (5-0-2) from Nov. 17-Dec. 7, 2009.
Florida is last in the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference standings, but the Cats come into tonight’s game with a season-high three-game winning streak. Two of those triumphs came in the shootout and one in overtime. This marks the first time in Florida’s franchise history that the Cats have won three straight games that required more than 60 minutes of hockey to settle.
“These are real dangerous games,” says Caps winger Eric Fehr. “In this league, there is a lot of pride and there is never an easy game. So these are games you’ve got to be careful for, you’ve got to be prepared for and you definitely can’t look ahead of tonight.”
Florida goalie Jacob Markstrom has played well of late, spurring his team’s recent resurgence.
“I think this is probably as hard a game as you can get,” says Oates of tonight’s game. “Because technically in the standings, you’re supposed to win. First of all, they’ve won three in a row. They’re playing good; their goalie is playing well. [Markstrom is] a young kid, the last time we played him was his first start [this season]. He has obviously made a huge adjustment since then.
“They’re playing better. They’ve got some new legs, some guys that are excited to be in the NHL. They don’t know any different. So we have to be really focused and ready to play our game.”
Rookie Florida center Nick Bjugstad is set to make his NHL debut tonight against the Capitals. Bjugstad is a native of Blaine, Minn., the same town that produced Caps forward Hendricks, and both players attended Blaine High School. During Hendricks’ days at Blaine H.S., Bjugstad – the nephew of former NHLer Scott Bjugstad – was the team’s stick boy.
“This is great for him,” says Hendricks. “When I went through there, his uncle Scott was my coach. Scott had a great NHL career. Nick was usually our stick boy at all of our games.
“I’m really feeling old tonight seeing him getting an opportunity to play in the NHL, but being from Blaine and being the kid that he is it’s great to see and I’m very happy for him.”
Bjugstad becomes the seventh Panther to make his NHL debut this season, and he is the third Florida first-rounder from the 2010 NHL Entry Draft to crack the team’s lineup.
Including players who are currently on injured reserve, the Cats currently have 11 first-rounders and eight second-round choices on their roster.
“I think tonight’s going to be a big test,” says Caps defenseman John Erskine. “Florida might be at the bottom of the pack, but they’ve won their last three in a row and they’re playing good hockey right now. They’re going to be looking for that big start and we’ve got to be ready for them.
“To win on the road is great, and you have to do it in the playoffs to win the Cup. We just have to keep doing the things we’re doing and work hard.”
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