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Caps Back at it Against Cats

February 26, 2014
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Feb. 27 vs. Florida Panthers at BB&T Center   

Time: 7:30 p.m.

TV: Comcast SportsNet

Radio: Capitals Radio Network


Washington Capitals (27-23-9)

Florida Panthers (22-29-7)


Some 19 days after their last game – a 3-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils at Verizon Center – the Washington Capitals are back in action on Thursday night when they take on the Panthers in Florida. The game closes out the season’s series between the two clubs.


Thursday’s game starts a two-game road trip and a stretch in which Washington will play four of its next five games on the road. The Capitals visit Boston on Saturday afternoon and then they return home to host Philadelphia at Verizon Center in a Sunday matinee. The Caps then embark on a trip that involves games on back-to-back nights, on Wednesday in Philadelphia and Thursday right back in Boston.


The NHL’s trade deadline comes at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, hours before the Caps face the Flyers in Philly.


With 63 points on the season, the Capitals are tied for fourth in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division and they’re tied for ninth in the Eastern Conference standings. The Caps are a point shy of the wild card spot in the conference and they’re three points shy of third place in the Metro. They’ve got 23 games remaining in which to make up that ground, but they’re also faced with the most difficult post-Olympic schedule of any team in the NHL.


“It’s cliché again, but it is day by day,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward. “We can’t worry about what is going to happen next week. Our first game at task is against Florida and we’re going to try to win two points there and move on from there. Our mindset right now is just against Florida, and once we do that and execute we move on and play Boston after that.”

Washington had five players representing their countries in the Olympics, and four of those players – Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Martin Erat and Alex Ovechkin – returned to the ice to practice with their Capitals teammates on Tuesday. The other – Marcus Johansson – is still in Europe dealing with a passport/visa issue.


The Caps expect Johansson to arrive in South Florida on Wednesday night and they expect to have him on the ice for Thursday’s morning skate in preparation for the game against the Cats. As a precautionary measure, Washington recalled left wing Nicolas Deschamps from AHL Hershey on Wednesday.


The rest of the Olympians seem ready to leave Sochi behind them and set about the business of moving the Capitals up the standings and into a playoff position. Erat’s wife gave birth to a daughter in his absence, and he was able to make a quick stop in Nashville to meet the newest member of his family before returning to Kettler on Tuesday.


“When I got back here it’s been hard for me to click after everything that happened with my daughter,” admits Erat. “But when I got to practice, they showed us it’s for real and now it’s back on. You’ve got a couple days to think about it and then go back to the season and make a playoff push. We’ve got 23 games left and it’s going to be a hard stretch for us. If you want to do some damage in the playoffs, we have to first get there.”


After enduring a seven-game losing streak from Jan. 12-24, Washington went into the break with a 5-2-1 mark in its last eight games prior to the league-wide respite. That’s roughly the pace the Capitals will need to put forth over their final 23 games if they hope to earn an eighth straight berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.


Having put together that solid stretch of eight games leading into the break, the Caps know what they need to do moving forward and believe they can draw confidence – if not necessarily momentum – from that run.


“I think we’re getting a lot happier with the way that we’re playing,” says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. “Obviously after that seven-game losing streak, we knew we had some work to do to make sure we were still in a good spot come the Olympic break. And I think we did that, we accomplished that. We’re in a good spot considering that seven-game losing streak. We know that if we keep playing the way that we were [before the break], we have a very good chance of making the playoffs.”


While the Capitals were playing well going into the February Olympic break, the Panthers were limping in. Florida went 2-6 in its last eight games prior to the break, getting outscored by an aggregate 32-18 in the process.


The Panthers are one of only five NHL teams that will start the post-Olympic stretch drive 10 or more points south of a playoff position. A week away from the trade deadline, it’s a decent bet that that Panthers will part with some of their veteran players who are set to become unrestricted free agents this summer.


Florida’s roster includes three veteran players signed to one-year deals after successful training camp tryouts. Each of the three – goaltender Tim Thomas, defenseman Tom Gilbert and forward Brad Boyes – has played well enough to make himself attractive to potential suitors as the deadline draws near.


Despite being sidelined with injuries on two separate occasions this season, Thomas has earned 15 of Florida’s 22 victories. He has a 2.80 GAA and a .910 save pct., but was 1-3 with a 3.25 GAA and an .887 save pct. in his last four starts before the break. There may not be much of a market for goaltending at the 2014 deadline, but teams have a tendency to make some surprising moves at deadline time, too.


The right-handed shooting Gilbert is tied for the Cats’ team lead in defensemen scoring (25 points) and his nightly average of 21:10 in ice time is second among Florida blueliners. Gilbert’s possession numbers have been solid on a mediocre Cats team, and more than a few clubs could be lining up for Gilbert’s services. He has averaged better than 20 minutes per night in eight of his nine NHL seasons.


With 15 goals, Boyes is the Panthers’ leading goal scorer this season. The well-traveled 31-year-old hasn’t netted more than 15 since bagging 33 for the Blues in 2008-09.


Given that the Panthers signed all three players in September and gave up nothing (other than salary) to acquire them, any assets the Cats are able to bring back in potential deals involving any of the three are gravy.