April 7 vs. New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden
Time: 6:30 pm TV: NBC Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at 3:00 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 3:00 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (41-32-8)
New York Rangers (51-23-7)
The Capitals take to the road for their final game of the 2011-12 regular season, a Saturday night match with the New York Rangers in Manhattan.
Washington clinched its fifth straight postseason berth on Thursday night with a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers in the Capitals’ regular season home ice finale. The Caps could still lay claim to a fifth straight Southeast Division title with a win on Saturday over the Rangers coupled with a Florida regulation loss on Saturday. The Panthers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night in Sunrise.
The Caps established a physical tone early in that Thursday win over the Panthers, and they also grabbed an early lead and built on it. Most importantly, they protected that lead and maintained it the rest of the way. The game Washington put together in its win over Florida would be suitable for the opening game of a playoff series as well.
“I thought we played well,” says Caps defenseman Dennis Wideman. “We came out and started the game really well. I thought we had good energy and played pretty physical. We got that early lead. We started to lay off a little bit and they started to come at us and it tightened the game up again, but we hung on and we got that late goal which is what we’re going to need to do.
“When you get in the playoffs and you’re playing against great teams, they’re going to score goals so you have to be able to hold on and keep coming at them.”
Thursday’s scenario was perfect for the Caps. They were able to clinch a playoff berth – alleviating some of the pressure they’ve been playing under of late – and they still have some upward mobility in the Eastern Conference playoff seedings going into Saturday’s game.
“Obviously we would have liked to clinch a long time ago,” says Wideman. “But to not have to try to do it going into New York – which is obviously a tough place to play – is good.”
The Capitals have won at least one road game against each of the other Eastern Conference playoff teams this season, with the exception of New York. The Caps dropped a 3-2 decision to the Rangers in a Sunday matinee match on Feb. 12.
It’s more than likely that Washington would draw New York as its first-round playoff opponent. The Caps could be right back in the Big Apple later in the week, opening the first-round series against the Rangers.
Going into Saturday’s slate of NHL activity, the Capitals have an 80 percent chance of finishing eighth and facing the Rangers in the first round, an 11 percent chance of winning the Southeast Division and hosting the New Jersey Devils to start the playoffs and a nine percent chance of finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference standings and traveling to Boston to start the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Heading into the 2011-12 NHL regular season, the Caps appeared to be one of the deepest teams in the league in terms of goaltending depth. They had veteran Tomas Vokoun slated to be the team’s No. 1 netminder, and Michal Neuvirth slotted as his backup. Neuvirth won 27 games and a playoff series for the Caps last season. Washington also had talented youngster Braden Holtby (10-2-2 in the NHL in 2010-11) and journeyman Dany Sabourin playing at AHL Hershey and promising first-year pro Philipp Grubauer in the nets at ECHL South Carolina.
With the start of the playoffs just days away, that netminding depth is being sorely tested.
On March 29 in Boston, Vokoun suffered a recurrence of a lower body injury that has plagued him for the last several weeks. He left that game against the Bruins in the first period and has not been on the ice since. Neuvirth left Thursday’s game with the Panthers with a lower body injury of his own; he underwent an exam on Friday afternoon and is listed as day-to-day.
Holtby came on in relief of Neuvirth and finished off Florida. The 31-year-old Sabourin – a veteran of 57 career NHL games – is starting in goal for Hershey on Friday night at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He will almost certainly be recalled to the Caps to serve as Holtby’s back-up in New York. Grubauer is out for the season after undergoing hand surgery last week.
In short, the Caps are down to two of their top five goaltenders in the organization. With Neuvirth’s status up in the air, Holtby could find himself going head-to-head with New York’s Henrik Lundqvist, Boston’s Tim Thomas or New Jersey’s Martin Broduer in a Stanley Cup playoff series by this time next week.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” says Holtby. “Obviously, if I get the opportunity to play, I’d like to bring my level [of play] up to that of other goalies. It’s in my mentality that I’ve always liked a challenge. There’s no better feeling in the world than going up against the best in your profession in the world and trying to outduel them.”
Like the Capitals as a team, Holtby has had a bit of a rollercoaster season. He sees that as a plus heading into the postseason.
“As hard as it has been for us and myself through the year,” he says, “you have to look at it as a positive compared to the last couple of years where the team has just kind of breezed through the regular season and really had the problems get thrown under the rug because you keep winning. This year, they were exposed and that’s a good thing. It’s definitely going to benefit us.”
The Rangers head into Saturday’s game with a chance to claim their first Presidents’ Trophy since 1993-94, the same season in which the Blueshirts ended a 54-year Stanley Cup drought. New York has 109 points, tied with the Vancouver Canucks for the most in the NHL.
The St. Louis Blues are in action on Friday in the lone game on the NHL slate; with 107 points, the Blues could also be in the running for the trophy on the season’s final day if they can gain a point on Friday against Phoenix. The Rangers own the tie-breaker with the Canucks and would own it over the Blues as well, so New York could lay claim to the Presidents’ Trophy with a win over Washington on Saturday.
This season marks the first time in more than two decades that the Presidents’ Trophy is up for grabs heading into the final day of the regular season. In 1990-91, the Chicago Blackhawks had a one-point lead over the Blues heading into the season’s final day. Both teams won, leaving the Hawks in possession of the Presidents’ Trophy for that season.
If St. Louis moves into the picture on Friday, this would mark the firs time in the modern era that three clubs headed into the season’s final day with a shot at first place overall.