With two games left on their regular season schedule, the Caps are locked into the No. 3 slot in the Eastern Conference standings. They have no mobility either upward or downward from here on out, and are merely biding time to learn the identity of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff opponent.
With a new coach and a new system, Washington was one of the NHL teams most in need of a few exhibition games prior to the start of the 2012-13 season. The lockout and resulting 48-game abbreviated schedule led to hurry-up training camps and no preseason games for all 30 clubs.
Ironically, now that Washington has no need whatsoever for exhibition games, they have two games remaining in the campaign that have no effect on their position in the standings. They could treat them as tune-ups, or as exhibition contests. They could rest some players, pull back the ice time on some players, give some players a game who’ve been sitting out a while.
That’s not going to happen.
These last two games are spread over five and possibly six days, depending on whether the Caps start the playoffs on Tuesday or Wednesday. After a season replete with back-to-back games and weekends in which they played three times in four nights, two games in five nights is a downright leisurely pace that allows for built-in rest.
Just over 12 hours after clinching the Southeast crown on Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets, the Caps were back at work on the Kettler Capitals Iceplex sheet, conducting a short practice rather than giving guys the day off. The division title is nice, but six teams get one of those every season. Sixteen teams make the playoffs every season. Those are worthy achievements, and they should be noted.
Noted, but not celebrated.
No one grows up dreaming of winning a Southeast Division crown. Winning the Stanley Cup has to be – must be – the singular, driving goal for players and for the 30 NHL organizations. Business and hockey operations decisions need to be – and must be – made with exactly that in mind: “Will it help us win the Cup?”
Whatever “it” is, if the answer is “no,” don’t do it.
Having a couple of exhibition games before the start of the playoffs after a shortened season and resting young men who don’t want or need rest doesn’t strike me as something that would help to win the coveted chalice.
When you’ve got a team that has won 10 of its last 11 games heading into the final two contests of the campaign, business as usual seems to be the best course. Try to make it 12 of 13 and roll that momentum on into the second season.
You want rest? Get it in July.
Caps coach Adam Oates will start Michal Neuvirth in goal tonight against Ottawa in the penultimate game of the regular season. That makes sense; you need both of your goaltenders to be as sharp as possible. That’s why Oates gave Neuvirth consecutive starts a couple of weeks ago. But you won’t find anyone in the Washington locker room that would rather have a day off than to play in these last two games.
And so it will be business as usual for the Capitals as they play out the last two games of the season.
“Quite honestly,” Oates told reporters on Wednesday, “I think we’re going to play the same exact way. Guys are used to their minutes, and because of that you’re used to your conditioning based on that. I don’t want it to affect the guys’ conditioning. That’s a very important thing.”
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