And so it begins.
The Caps can't make the playoffs with a great road trip, but they sure as hell can take themselves out of post-season contention if things don't go well. Six games: Nashville, Chicago, Atlanta, Carolina, Tampa and Florida. What do you think - gotta have eight points, at a bare minimum?
The good news is that none of these teams is unbeatable. Nashville lost big at home to the worst team in hockey on Saturday (but then rebounded to beat the League's best team on the road the next day). Chicago is a nice story in the way that the Caps were a "nice story," but here it is mid-March and the Caps are still playing meaningful games while the 'Hawks are optimistically looking towards next year. And, of course, there's the trio of Southeast Division foes, each of whom the Caps have beaten at least twice already this season.
The bad news is that the Caps haven't exactly shone brightly in big games lately. In fact, since the night they triumphantly stood atop the Southeast Division for the first time in years, they've gone a respectable (thanks to the current three-game win streak) 9-6-3, but only 2-3-1 within the Division, and even in some of their wins haven't been at their best.
"It looked like we were afraid to make a mistake instead of, 'Let's go get them,' and play the way we can.... We were tight a little bit out there because of the importance of the game," said Bruce Boudreau of Sunday's game against Boston, but he could just as easily have been talking about any number of games since early February.
Of course, the more cautious play has yielded some impressive defensive numbers, most notably 19 goals allowed in the last 11 games. Cristobal Huet (tonight's starter) is on fire (1.69 GAA, .940 SV% in his last five games; coincidentally, Huet has already faced the Preds this season, stopping 40 shots but losing in a shootout after giving up three late third period goals). Olie Kolzig (tomorrow night's starter) is also on fire (1.20 GAA, .942 SV% in his last four games). And so on. But the Caps need to be more aggressive and less-easily frustrated than they were on Sunday, or else they're going to see nothing but one-fours the rest of the way.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), this sets up as a game in which both teams have every incentive to play a tight, low-risk sixty minutes and then take their chances in overtime or the shootout - the Preds, like the Caps, are within striking distance of eighth place in the conference, but on the outside looking in. Will either team open it up, or will it be a "wink-wink, nudge-nudge, see you in sixty minutes when we each have a point" affair? Tune in to find out.
Elsewhere 'Round the Rinks:
If you missed this Larry Wigge article on Olie Kolzig, unmiss it now.... Should the Caps miss the playoffs, be prepared for six thousand "Can you miss the playoffs and be MVP?" articles like this one.... Speaking of the Hart Trophy, Mike Brophy's top six candidates early yesterday morning were Jarome Iginla, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Nicklas Lidstrom, Evgeni Malkin and Vincent Lecavalier. Apparently he had a cup of coffee and came back and remembered that other guy a couple of hours later.... And speaking of brain-dead journos, Pierre LeBrun names ten Coach of the Year candidates, but doesn't list Gabby among 'em.... I sure hope Nicklas Backstrom is mentally ready for tonight's game after no doubt being shaken by this news.... The Top 10 Defensemen of All-Time apparently doesn't include Rod Langway or Scott Stevens.... It'll be "a crying shame if the Washington Capitals don't make the NHL playoffs." Agreed.... Happy 30th Birthday to former Cap Jan Bulis.... Finally, one year ago today we looked at two rumors (one of which more or less panned out - I'll let you figure out which one) and two years ago today we previewed that night's Caps/Kitties match up.
Hart: Henrik Sedin (2G, 4 SOG)
Ross: Brent Burns, Sami Salo, Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Kevin Bieksa (2 points each)
Norris: Brent Burns (G, A, +1, 5 SOG, 6 hits)
Vezina: Niklas Backstrom (W, 29 saves on 30 shots against)
Richard: Henrik Sedin (2G)
Calder: Daniel Carcillo (G, 21 PIMs... at least he gets the fantasy Calder)
- Aiken: Peter Forsberg (0 points, 0 SOG, -2)