Monday, January 31, 2011, 7:45 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
Bruce Boudreau knows the NHL standings. He knows where his Washington Capitals stand, in the Southeast Division and in the Eastern Conference. He knows if the playoffs began today, he'd be staring at a first-round showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins, no home-ice advantage and a long and difficult road toward the Stanley Cup.
"We're in a battle," Boudreau said. "We know it."
This is neither the position the Caps wanted to be in coming out of the All-Star break, nor one they're accustomed to being in at this point of the calendar year.
In each of the last two seasons, the Capitals opened the second half (post-All-Star break in 2009, post-Olympics break in 2010) in first place in the division. There was little question about their chances of making the playoffs. They were practically in already.
That's not the case this time around. When the Caps return to the ice Tuesday night against the Montreal Canadiens, they'll find themselves four points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division, only seven points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes (the conference's current ninth-place club).
Instead of a 31-game stroll through the remainder of the regular season, they're preparing for a 31-game dogfight to determine their fate.
"This is going to be a tough 31 games," said Alex Ovechkin, fresh off his All-Star appearance in Raleigh. "But we have to make a push."
At the moment, the Capitals have a firm grasp on the conference's fifth seed. The arch-rival Penguins sit right above them. Obviously, just about every road to the Stanley Cup Finals will have to run through Pittsburgh at some point, but the last thing the Caps (or the NHL, for that matter) wants is to have to cross that threshold in round one of the playoffs.
A strong second-half push would put the Capitals in better position to win the division or at least jump into fourth place and thus earn home-ice advantage.
"Home ice is so important in the playoffs, you want to get back up there as much as possible and get back at the top of the conference," left winger Jason Chimera said. "Those are goals; we have to work to get that."
A much-needed offensive spark would certainly help the cause. The Capitals have scored only 20 goals in their last 11 games, getting shut out three times during the span. Amazingly, they've still picked up 12 points in the process thanks to stellar defense and four overtimeshootout losses.
But Boudreau and Co. know they can't expect to keep winning when they can't find the net even twice per game. Help could be on the way in the form of winger Alexander Semin, who practiced Monday afternoon and may be ready to return from a groin injury Tuesday night against the Canadiens.
"There's a chance," Boudreau said. "I mean, I'd like to see him. But he will be the determining factor, letting us know if he's OK to play. And he hasn't done that yet."
With or without Semin, the Caps know they face a stiff challenge in the days and weeks to come. The immediate schedule is particularly tough, with Tuesday's game against Montreal followed by showdowns at Tampa Bay Friday night and then at home against Pittsburgh on Super Bowl Sunday.
And the task doesn't get easier after that. Nineteen of the remaining 31 games come against the top 10 teams in the Eastern Conference. Eighteen of those 31 games come on the road.
This is new territory for the Capitals, though given their postseason flameouts the last two years, perhaps they actually prefer the more difficult path.
"Personally, I would, because the other way hasn't worked for us yet," defenseman Mike Green said. "I think with anything in life, you have to earn what you deserve. If we want to win this, we need to work hard and make sure we rise to the occasion instead of being overconfident and thinking this is going to come easy."