Some thoughts on tonight's game in Tampa:
Bruce Boudreau: "Reality is it's a big game for both teams." [Link]
I can buy that.
Mike Knuble provided a bit more nuance in his response to the fairly silly leading question, but the fact of the matter is that, win or lose, the Caps will have 29 games left on their schedule after the final buzzer sounds in Tampa on Friday night (including a marquee match-up with Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon before a national television audience). How does a team approach those last 29 games - games which will determine playoff seeding - if they've already lost a "must-win"?
The Caps head to Tampa with key injuries, and go there to face the NHL's hottest team... on February 4. If they lose, it will be that much tougher to repeat as Southeast Division Champions, and there is certainly a chance that playoff-hopeful squads beneath them in the standings will gain on them. Heck, they'll be just one point closer to first place in their Division that to ninth place in the Conference. But "must-win"?
A lot has been made about the Caps' mental toughness - Elliotte Friedman referred to them as "the most fragile" of the NHL's top teams back in December - and perhaps this latest example of playing-to-the-narrative speaks to that. And maybe it's an attempt by some to send a message via the media to certain players that it's time to flip the proverbial switch. But let's be clear: Friday night's game against the Lightning isn't a "must-win" - the Caps haven't played one of those since April 28. It's a big game, probably the biggest of the year so far (though it might not even be a great measuring-stick game, given the injuries and the still-glaring roster hole at second-line center). And it may go a long way towards determining the Southeast Division champs. But it's not a "must-win."
Of course, that doesn't mean it's not a "must-show-up-and-put-forth-an-honest-effort"... because it certainly is that.
[Ed. Note: Check out Homer McFanboy for his take on the importance of tonight's game.]