April 1 vs. Atlanta Thrashers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM, 106.7 FM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. and Two-Man Advantage Pre-game show at 6:30 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Atlanta Thrashers (41-30-5)
Washington Capitals (49-15-12)
Washington closes out a three-game homestand and attempts to halt a three-game losing streak (0-1-2) on Thursday night when the Atlanta Thrashers visit Verizon Center. The Capitals have four home games remaining this season, two against Atlanta and two against Boston. The Thrashers will return to the District next Friday, April 9.
Thursday marks the Capitals’ fourth attempt at nailing down the team’s 50th win of the season. Washington has reached the 50-win plateau twice previously in its history, including last season.
Heading into Thursday night’s game, the Capitals’ magic number to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy is five. Any combination of five points gained by the Caps or not gained by the San Jose Sharks puts the Presidents’ Trophy in Washington’s hands for the first time in franchise history. Regardless of what San Jose does the rest of the way, the Caps can clinch the top spot in the NHL simply by going no worse than 2-3-1 in their final six games of the season.
Slow starts have doomed the Caps during the life of the team’s current three-game speed bump. Washington has been outscored by a combined 9-1 in the first period of its three consecutive losses, and the Caps have surrendered 13 or more shots in the first period of each of their last five games, something they had not done all season previously.
“The last three games, we’ve been outscored 9-1 [in the first period],” observes Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “But by the same token, I think over the course of the month it’s like 13-11 or 14-11 [actually, 16-11]. So it’s not as big a discrepancy as people would tend to believe it is.
“But we always remember what has happened recently, and in the last three games it hasn’t been good. It’s something we have to improve upon. There’s lots of theories of why that is, but the bottom line is we’re not getting it done in the first period and we’re having to fight from behind. You play a different style of game totally when you’re fighting from behind than when you’re playing with a lead. We’d like to get back to playing with the lead.”
Even with their recent mini-slump, the Caps still have five fewer regulation losses (15) than any other team in the NHL. Since the second half of the season started, Washington is 25-4-6.
In their 5-4 overtime loss to the Senators on Thursday, the Capitals dug themselves a 3-1 hole in the first period. But Washington rebounded to even the score after 40 minutes of play, and it even held a 4-3 lead in the third before surrendering a pair of power play goals – one in the third and one in overtime – en route to defeat.
“We did some good things last game,” says right wing Matt Bradley, “but we still made a lot of big mistakes. That’s something Bruce talked about. We’re going to have to get better. In the playoffs, when games are tight, it’s those little mistakes that you make that end up being the difference between winning and losing. So for us, we really have to clean up our own end and not give the other team chances. We know we’ll get our goals if we play good defensively. For us, playing good defensively is the key.”
Right now, the Caps are tied with Pittsburgh for 18th in the NHL in goals against. Both the Caps and Pens have allowed an average of 2.82 goals per game. All 11 of the teams below Washington and Pittsburgh in the goals against ledger would miss the playoffs if the season ended today.
More alarmingly, the Capitals have allowed 55 goals in 17 games since the team’s franchise record 14-game winning streak came to an end on Feb. 10. Washington has allowed more than three goals per game during that stretch, posting a record of 8-3-6 in the process.
Washington will use the last six games of the regular season to tune up its game and get ready to make a serious run for its first Stanley Cup title.
“We want to be confident going into the playoffs no matter how far ahead we are in points during the regular season,” says Bradley. “Once you get to the playoffs, that means nothing. A first-place team playing an eighth-place team [in the first round], there are upsets all the time. If you’re not ready to play, you’ll lose.
“We know in here in this room that we haven’t played well the last little bit. It’s just a matter of getting ready for the playoffs. You want to go into the playoffs confident and playing well systems-wise, especially. That’s something we have six games to work on.”
Bradley and his teammates are echoing their coach’s words. Now, they will seek to translate those words into actions on the ice.
“To me,” says Boudreau, “the most important thing is going in the right direction when you go into the playoffs. If you’re going in the right direction and you’re a good team, that usually ends up [resulting] with wins.
“We’ve got six games left. I want us to start playing the way we’re capable of playing. We’re playing – in five of those games at least – desperate teams that definitely have something to fight for. It should be great tests for us of playoff hockey before playoff hockey.”
The Thrashers are certainly among those desperate teams to which Boudreau refers. Atlanta is in a heated scrap as it bids for just the second Stanley Cup playoff berth in franchise history. With five games remaining, the Thrashers are two points shy of the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
If they do sneak into the postseason, the Thrashers could draw the Capitals as a first-round opponent. And if they do sneak into the playoffs, the Thrashers will have earned their spot. They play the Caps twice in Washington, they host New Jersey and they play Pittsburgh once at home and once on the road. None of the other teams vying for the final playoff berths in the East has such a rugged slate the rest of the way.
Washington has taken all four previous meetings between the two Southeast Division rivals this season, The Caps have scored at least four goals in each of those four games and have outscored Atlanta by a combined 22-10 in the season’s series.
Notes: Washington needs three wins in its final four home games to match the single-season club mark of 30 home victories in a season. The Caps need to win one of their two remaining road tilts to establish a single-season franchise standard for road wins. The Capitals have won 22 road games in a season four times during their 35-season history.