On Saturday night, the Capitals took full advantage of the game in hand they had been holding on the Winnipeg Jets. Although not without some drama, Washington defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning by a 6-5 count in overtime, and that victory pushed the Caps four points ahead of the Jets in the chase for the last-ever Southeast Division crown and the home-ice playoff seed that goes along with it.
“For us, it’s about being consistent and play that 60-minute [game],” says Caps center Mike Ribeiro. “Last game, we kind of let our guard down for a bit and we saw the result. It’s good that it happened like that and we got the two points, and now we know that we cannot here and [we have to] really play the 60 minutes.”
In the week ahead, the Caps and Jets play on the same nights. While the Capitals host Toronto tonight, the Jets will be hosting Tampa Bay. When Washington visits Ottawa on Thursday, the Jets will be entertaining Carolina. And when the Caps finish up the week in Montreal on Saturday, Winnipeg will be closing out its six-game homestand with the plucky New York Islanders.
The goal for the Caps this week is simply to maintain that four-point cushion. If they can do so, they’ll put themselves in good shape for the season’s final week and the last meeting between Washington and Winnipeg at Verizon Center on April 23.
Players and coaches take games one at a time, as the famous cliché goes. We media types and fans have the curse/luxury of looking ahead. If the Caps can manage to maintain that four-point lead over the Jets leading up to Winnipeg’s visit to Verizon a week from today, Washington will be in a position to clinch the Southeast that night.
One caveat; by the time the Jets hit town, the Caps will hold another game in hand on Winnipeg. The Jets play at Buffalo on Monday night, and their Buffalo-Washington road run will finish out the road portion of Winnipeg’s schedule. Once Winnipeg leaves town, it will have just one game remaining, an April 25 home date against Montreal. The Caps will face Ottawa at home the same night, and the Jets will be in the clubhouse for the campaign at that point.
So certainly the Caps have incentive to keep piling up the points as they close out a three-game homestand against the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight. But there’s an underlying theme at work as well.
Toronto and Ottawa are the Caps’ next two opponents, and Washington hasn’t seen either foe since the first 11 games of the season, a troublesome time during which the Caps compiled a 2-8-1 record and lost consecutive contests in both Ottawa and Toronto after having owned a lead heading into the third period.
This week offers the Caps a chance to put their best foot forward, to show the Leafs and the Senators they they’re far from the team they were in January and early February. In addition to picking up some needed points to nail down the division, the Caps could be planting some playoff seeds as well. There is a reasonably strong chance that Washington would face Toronto or Ottawa in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs if it is first able to take care of business in the Southeast Division.
“It’s going to be fun,” says Caps forward Marcus Johansson. “We play a lot better now, and we play the right way now. And when we’ve done that, we’ve won games. And I think the confidence level of all the players here is a lot higher. I think the teams that played us in the beginning of the season that play us now are going to see that it’s almost two different teams. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be good to go out and play those teams again.”
Washington is 0-2 against the Leafs and 0-1 against the Senators thus far this season, and half of its six remaining games are against those two clubs.
“We know we’re in a good spot right now,” says Ribeiro, “but six games is a lot of games to be played. And it’s [against] teams that we might see a few weeks from now. But we’re a totally different team from when we saw them at the beginning of the year and now.”