Tuesday, March 22, 2011, 8:46 a.m.
By Chase Hughes
CAPITALS PAGE CAPITALS VIDEO
Go back one year. The Capitals were on cruise control, sitting comfortably atop the Eastern Conference, headed for the Presidents Trophy with the NHLs best record.
Now flip the calendar back to the present. If the Caps are going to secure the No. 1 seed in the East and the home-ice advantage for each playoff series that goes with it, they likely will have to fight for the top spot right to the end of the regular season.
So which is better? Before you answer, consider that last years No. 1 spot didnt keep the Montreal Canadiens and torrid goalie Jaroslav Halak from ousting the Caps in the first round of the playoffs.
Its not the be-all, end-all, forward Mike Knuble said Monday about landing the conferences top seed. Weve been there last year, and it didnt work out great for us necessarily.
Last seasons Capitals built their record on a high-scoring game plan. But the offensive Supermen met their kryptonite in Halak. This season, Washington has taken a more defensive approach, which has meant struggles while the team has adjusted. However, the Caps have turned a corner as the postseason approaches. Washington has won nine of its past 10 games and is the hottest team in the NHL.
I think we feel pretty good about our team. I know all of our guys and me personally I just like where were at this point as a group, how our teams made up much more than last year, Knuble said.
I think we have a much better balance and were more prepared.
Forward Nicklas Backstrom agrees that while the record may not show it, the Caps are better off this time around as they approach the postseason.
I think were more experienced this year, he said. Were playing better as a team this year, and we just want to focus on that and keep going.
Washington ranks third in the NHL with a 2.34 goals-against average. The Caps havent placed in the top 12 in that category since finishing fourth in 1999-2000.
While the players may not worry too much about the top seed, they do understand the advantages that come with it.
You want to be as high up as possible, give yourself the best shot and make sure you get that home-ice advantage because you would rather play here than in someone elses barn, defenseman Karl Alzner said.
Knuble has been on both ends of a seventh game in the playoffs in his career. He was with the Capitals last season when they lost Game 7 at home to Montreal and was with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007-08 when they upset Washington in the first round. Still, if given the choice, he would prefer to play at home.
Statistically I dont know if that works out, if theres any home-ice advantage anymore, but you ultimately want, if youre in a Game 7 situation, to play at home, he said.
In last years Stanley Cup Playoffs all four series decided by a seventh game were won by the visiting team.
The Capitals have nine games left to try to gain the top spot. They will have a prime opportunity to gain some ground as they visit the top-seeded Flyers on Tuesday night. Philadelphia has won two out of its past three games but dropped five of seven in its previous stretch. The Flyers have also lost three of their past four at the Wells Fargo Center, while Washington has won seven of eight on the road.
In addition to playing the Easts top team, the Caps will also face the nos. 6, 8, 9 and 10 teams in the conference as the season winds down. Chances are they will get a preview of what is to come in their first-round match-up.
But with three more games left on their current road trip, the Capitals will remain focused on the here and now. Knuble said that more important than the standings is how a team is playing at this point in the season.
You can gain the No. 1 seed this late in the year and move up by playing well, and I think thats the bigger goal, he said.
Weve got to play well and consistently and as a result well climb the standings.