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April 25 vs. Ottawa Senators at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: 106.7 The Fan/Capitals Radio Network
Ottawa Senators (23-16-6)
Washington Capitals (26-18-2)
Two nights after clinching their fifth Southeast Division title in six seasons, the Washington Capitals are back at work. The Caps host the Ottawa Senators for the first and only time this season in the middle match of a season-ending three-game homestand.
Washington earned the Southeast Division crown by virtue of its 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. The Capitals’ third- and fourth-liners did much of the heavy lifting in that victory, getting some timely assistance from defenseman John Erskine, who blocked seven shots including a pair of goal-savers.
With two games remaining in the regular season, the Caps are locked into the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference standings. They can’t move up or down, and there’s less than a week between now and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. There’s an opportunity in these last two games to give some rest to players who might need it, but that’s not the Capitals’ mentality.
Caps coach Adam Oates isn’t inclined to rest regulars or to diminish their ice time leading up to the opening game of the first round of the playoffs, which will take place at Verizon Center either next Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on the opponent.
“Quite honestly,” says Oates. “I think we’re going to play the same exact way. Guys are used to their minutes, and because of that you’re used to your conditioning based on that. I don’t want it to affect the guys’ conditioning. That’s a very important thing.”
Washington has also won 10 of its last 11 games. There’s nothing to be gained by treating the last two games of the regular season as exhibition games and easing off the gas pedal.
Coincidentally, the Caps have had just two subpar games in their last 21 contests, and those have come on the road against Boston (on March 16) and Ottawa (on April 18). The Caps’ last two regular season games are against those same two teams, but on home ice. Washington has a chance to put a good foot forward against both of those teams with the playoffs looming next week.
“I think right now mentally we can’t focus on the playoffs,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “The last two games, it’s going to be important for us to play the game we’re going to play in the playoffs. Maybe Ottawa is going to be the team we’re going to face in the first round. We’ll see what’s going to happen. But we just have to think and play the system that we’re going to use in the playoffs.”
Ottawa is one of four teams that could finish sixth overall in the Eastern Conference standings, and the team that finishes in that spot will play the Capitals at Verizon Center in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series next week. The Caps went 0-2 in the two games they played against the Senators in Ottawa this season.
“If we do end up playing them,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer of the Senators, “we don’t want to give them any confidence against us. They already have enough as it us. We blew a two-goal lead in Ottawa at the beginning of the year and we still feel that should have been our game, but we’re in a different spot now.
“We play them [Thursday] night. They’ve been struggling a little bit as of late but they’ve got good players, they’re well coached and they’re going to come in with the mentality that they’re trying to climb the standings, which they are. We have to be ready for that.”
Between now and the start of the playoffs, the Caps have two games in five – and maybe six – days. They’ve got rest time built in. They’d be far better served trying to win their last two games, which would send them into the postseason having won 12 of their previous 13 games if they’re successful.
“We have to make sure that we’re bringing good hockey into the playoffs and peaking at the right time and having momentum going into the playoffs,” says Brouwer. “If you go into the playoffs on a little bit of a losing streak, it doesn’t matter where you are in the playoffs, it’s tough to turn it around as soon as the playoffs come.”
The Jan. 29 game between the Caps and Sens in Ottawa was arguably Washington’s best games in its first 11 this season. The Caps gave the Senators nothing offensively, but the Sens capitalized on a couple of good breaks and won the 3-2 game on a Sergei Gonchar power play goal late in the third period.
Last week, it was the Sens that stifled the Caps offensively. Washington was limited to just 19 shots on net – matching a single-game season low – and it was unable to establish much of a forecheck or to use its speed through the neutral zone.
“We played them at the beginning of the year and we actually played a very good hockey game and we let it get away,” says Oates. “Last week was not one of our better games, and in saying that, down the stretch with a minute left it was a 2-1 game.
“They’re stingy defensively, they’ve got great goaltending and they kind of build from there, mostly due to the injuries they’ve had. We have to be willing to play that kind of game, that it’s going to be a grind and that it’s going to take a while. You’ve got to wait for your chances to score, but you can’t give them any.”
Ottawa hits town in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings. The Sens haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet, but they could do so with a win over Washington on Thursday. Ottawa has three games remaining including Thursday against the Caps; the Sens will host Philadelphia on Saturday and they’ll finish up the campaign with a road game against the Bruins in Boston on Sunday.
After beating the Caps 3-1 last Thursday, the Sens dropped their next two games, both on home ice. The Sens absorbed a 4-1 loss to the Maple Leafs on Saturday and a 3-1 setback to the Penguins on Monday.
The Senators are 8-11-3 on the road this season, but they’ve won each of their last two games away from Ottawa.
Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson has been sidelined with an Achilles’ tendon injury he suffered on Feb. 13. Karlsson is expected to travel with the Senators to the District and he may return to the Ottawa lineup as soon as Thursday against the Capitals.
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