What if I told you that you could be in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings? Is that something you might be interested in?
For the last five seasons, that Bob Ryan (from HBO's "Entourage," silly) pitch would have held no sway for the Washington Capitals. The Caps were firmly in the top eight – or at least in the chase for the top eight – for the better part of the last five seasons, and they were in the playoffs at season’s end in all five of those campaigns.
The lockout-shortened 2012-13 season has been a different animal. New coach. Abbreviated training camp. No preseason games. Injuries, right from the start, to key players. The Caps started 0-3, which became 1-5-1, which became 2-8-1.
Washington was buried in the basement of the conference and divisional standings for much of the early portion of the season, and even an 8-3-0 run lifted the Caps only as high as 13th in the Eastern Conference.
Tenth place? Sure, where do I sign up?
Well, first you beat the Winnipeg Jets tonight at MTS Centre. Then you get a little help from your good friends in Pittsburgh, the Penguins. Achieve those two things, and the Caps end this Friday night in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings. It would be Washington’s high-water mark in the standings this season, and it would trail the Jets by as few as five points (if it were to defeat Winnipeg in regulation) and would be a mere three points from eighth place.
Once again, beat the Jets and get help from the Penguins.
First up, beating the Jets. No easy task, that. Winnipeg is tough in its own building, and it figures to have a sizable burr under its collective saddle over the way Washington has treated it in its own home of late.
The Caps have scored the last eight goals in the three previous games between the two teams this season, and they’ve blanked Winnipeg twice in their own building in a span of 19 days, including a 4-0 whitewash here last night.
In Thursday’s game, the Capitals limited the Jets to just 20 shots on net, the fewest the Caps have allowed in a game this season and the fewest the Jets have mustered in a game this season.
Winnipeg has played 55 games here in its new northern home, the MTS Centre. The Jets have been blanked here four times. The Caps have administered three of those four shutout defeats, and they’ve done it in their last four visits to the barn on Portage Av.
Think there is a chance the Jets are going to come out angry and relentless tonight?
“I hope not,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “Both times, it’s a tough environment here. The place is rocking at the beginning and we’ve handled it well. We talked about that this morning . Obviously, we expect them to be better [tonight]. What we think that is for them, we’ve got to be able to neutralize it and we’ve got to be ready to go from the start.”
“We might have been able to frustrate them a little bit,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “We were very disciplined through the neutral zone and they’re a team that likes to wind it up and use their speed and go end to end to get their crowd into it. The more we can dull down the game a little bit, stay disciplined, and use our structure to overcome their speed and their creativity, I think that plays into our hands.”
After taking a 2-0 lead in the first period – just the second time the Jets have been down a pair after 20 minutes in 14 home games this season, by the way – the Caps really dulled it down in the second on Thursday night. Winnipeg outshot Washington in the second period.
The Jets had a chance to make a mark on a couple of power-play chances in the third, but instead it was the Caps who put the game out of reach with an extra-man tally of their own.
It will be a tall task for the Caps to win two games here against the Jets in as many nights, especially given the recent history between the two teams. But if Washington can do it, they’ve got some rare upward standings mobility.
Pittsburgh visits Long Island tonight, seeking to push its winning streak to 11 games. That would match the Chicago Blackhawks for the longest winning streak in the league this season. If Pittsburgh downs the Islanders in regulation and the Caps do the same to the Jets, Washington heads to New York on Saturday in 10th place, preparing to end its season-long road trip against the Rangers in Manhattan, and just three points behind those Blueshirts.
“We came here for four points,” says Laich of his team’s rare two-games-in-two-days visit to Manitoba. “We’ve got two. And we really set the table for tonight. We know that they’re going to push really hard especially at the start. For us, we’ve got to match that, stay in control in the first period and stick to our game plan. And if we can, we can really make it interesting.”
Not just tonight, but over the final five weeks of this trying season. Tenth place is nothing to aspire to, but given the trials, travails and tribulations the Caps have encountered through the first two months of this rocky campaign, they'll gladly take that for tonight. They'll have 17 games left in which to improve upon that position.
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