April 5 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (46-22-11)
Toronto Maple Leafs (37-32-10)
Washington starts into the final week of the 2010-11 regular season with a quick visit north of the border to take on the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Tuesday. The game is the front end of the Capitals’ final pair of back-to-back games this season; they’ll return home on Wednesday to close out the home portion of their season’s slate with the Florida Panthers.
With three regular season games remaining, the Caps are even with the Philadelphia Flyers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Washington holds a four-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the Southeast Division standings.
Going into Tuesday’s game with the Leafs, the Caps can still finish anywhere from first to fifth in the Eastern Conference. A win at Toronto would clinch the Southeast Division and leave the Caps in one of the top three spots in the Conference at season’s end.
Washington just finished up a 2-0-1 homestand with each of the three games going into overtime. Most recently, the Capitals authored a 5-4 overtime victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night at Verizon Center.
The Caps jumped out to a 2-0 lead against Buffalo, but needed a last-minute power play goal with their goaltender pulled from Jason Arnott and an overtime game-winner from Alex Ovechkin to get the two points that vaulted them into the top spot in the Eastern Conference for the first time in nearly four months.
“It’s a good feeling,” says Caps defenseman Scott Hannan. “We feel like we’re playing the right way now. We’re coming back [in games]. We’ve still got some things to work on. There were some mistakes tonight that I think we cant let into our game, but we came out with the win and that’s what’s important.”
In Saturday’s game, defenseman Tyler Sloan left in the middle period after having “his bell rung,” according to Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. That marked the third straight game in which a Washington defenseman left the contest in the second period.
The Caps lost Dennis Wideman to a lower body injury for an indefinite period of time in Tuesday’s homestand opener against Carolina. In Thursday’s game against Columbus, John Erskine was unable to finish the game because of an undisclosed injury.
Erskine’s injury left the Caps with five able-bodied defensemen for Saturday’s skirmish with the Sabres, so blueliner Sean Collins was summoned from AHL Hershey for the Buffalo game.
Collins played well, skating 14:07 and finishing even in the plus/minus column. Sloan and Erskine are both nearly ready to return to the lineup; both practiced on Monday and both will accompany the club to Toronto for Tuesday’s tilt. But Collins will be along for the ride, too, just in case.
Since losing Wideman, the Caps have had noticeable difficulty getting the puck cleanly out of their own end and up the ice.
“I think that’s just a matter of sometimes we just weren’t moving the puck as quickly, getting back for pucks,” says Hannan. “We should be into the game a little bit more when you’re playing that much. I think we’ve just got to work on always getting back hard and making the right plays when we are coming out of our zone.”
The potential return of defensemen Mike Green and Tom Poti to the lineup should help the Caps in that regard. Poti has been sidelined since Jan. 12 and Green since Feb. 25. Those two rearguards were Washington’s ice time leaders for each of the last three seasons.
The Caps were 2-for-2 on the power play in Saturday’s game against the Sabres. Mike Knuble scored twice in the game, picking up one of the team’s two extra-man tallies on the night.
Knuble now has six power play goals on the season, tied with Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin for the team lead in that department. The leader in power play goals for every other team in the league has at least seven extra-man tallies on the season.
Getting hot at the right time, Knuble has scored eight goals and has recorded a dozen points in his last 11 games to help the Caps into a share of the Eastern Conference lead.
“It’s pretty satisfying,” says Knuble of the team’s position heading into the final week of the campaign. “We’ve come a long way as a team. We were forced to make changes and change the way we do things. We’re all betting and hoping it’s going to lead to good things in the future.”
Having missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for five straight seasons – the longest postseason drought in franchise history – the Maple Leafs are on the verge of a sixth straight miss in 2010-11. The Leafs have no room for error; they must win each of their last three games and they need Buffalo to lose each of its last three games in regulation. That is the only way Toronto gets in this spring.
After starting the season with four straight wins, Toronto won just one of its next dozen games (1-8-3) to fall far back in the playoff chase. The Leafs rebounded at the season’s midpoint, and they have posted an impressive record of 24-13-6 in calendar 2011.
Toronto has won six of its last seven games, scoring 25 goals in the process. The Leafs have scored nine goals in their three previous meetings with Washington this season, going 1-1-1 in those three games.
“They’re playing as good as any team in the league,” says Boudreau of the Maple Leafs. “And they’re probably the highest-scoring team that we will have faced, the most offensively gifted team – other than Philadelphia – in the East.
“It’s going to be a great challenge, their second-to-last game at home. They’ve been living on the edge and they’re going to play as hard as they can. It should be a good test for us.”