It has all the makings of the perfect storm.
The Winnipeg Jets are riding the energy of a 6-0-1 streak that has kept alive their desperate quest for the eighth and final playoff spot.
The Capitals are 9-1-0 in their last 10 and can clinch their fifth Southeast Division title in five years with a win in regulation or overtime.
With that as the backdrop, the Verizon Center will be filled to the brim and frothing with energy tonight.
So what was the mood at Kettler Capitals Iceplex Tuesday morning, eight hours before the Capitals’ biggest – yes, we can say that – game of the season?
“It seems like the happiness is here and the energy,” center Nicklas Backstrom said after a brief morning skate. “Everybody’s excited for this game. Everybody’s pumped about it.”
The Capitals have won five straight games at Verizon Center and play their final three games in front of fans that have seen their team rise from the ashes of a 2-8-1 start to within one regulation win of a division title.
“This is an extremely big game, the whole season,” Troy Brouwer. “We want to get in the playoffs. It’s been our whole goal. Guys aren’t too overexcited, but we know the magnitude of the game.”
The challenge, of course, is harnessing that energy.
“You’ve got to be able to find that line, where you’re not overworking and jumping to too many pucks or wearing yourself out before the game even starts,” Brouwer said. “For the guys who nap, that helps out a lot. You try to keep your game-day routine as normal as possible.”
How does a player sleep before a game that has so much at stake?
“Guys have been in big games before,” Brouwer said. “Two Game Sevens last year [in Boston and New York], so guys know how to control their emotions.”
Truth be told, tonight’s game means more to the Jets than it does to the Caps. A regulation loss would not only eliminate their hopes of winning the Southeast Division; it would derail their shot of getting into the postseason as the eighth seed in the East.
The Jets are one point behind the Senators and Rangers but have just two games remaining, while the Rangers and Sens each have three.
For the second straight day, Capitals coach Adam Oates pointed out that the Jets will be playing on tired legs – they are coming off Monday night’s 2-1 win in Buffalo -- and how that could impact tonight’s game.
“It shows itself,” Oates said. “A team might be a little sloppy because they’re tired, even though they’ll get some energy from the importance of the game. For us, we’ve had the benefit of a little rest that they haven’t.”
The Jets are expected to be without one of their top defensemen, Zach Bogosian, who is believed to be suffering from concussion symptoms, and checking-line center Kyle Wellwood, who has a broken hand.
Bogosian was replaced in the lineup by Derek Meech, who logged nearly 20 minutes on a top pairing with Dustin Byfuglien.
The Caps will turn to goaltender Braden Holtby, who is 3-1-0 with a 1.25 GAA and .960 save percentage against the Jets. Starting with the Caps’ back-to-back wins in Winnipeg on March 21 and 22, Holtby has started 14 of the Caps’ 16 games and is 11-2-1 with a 2.17 GAA and .932 save percentage.
Winnipeg is expected to go with Ondrej Pavelec, who is 1-3-0 with a 3.51 GAA and .865 save percentage against the Caps this season.
Pavelec will be starting for the second straight night. He has played in six other back-to-back games and is 2-4-0 with a 3.52 GAA and .880 save percentage in the back-end of those games.
Tonight also marks the Caps’ final game against a Southeast Division opponent this season before moving to a yet-to-be-named division next season. The Caps are 14-3-0 against the Southeast Division and are 3-1-0 against the Jets, outscoring them 13-1 in their last three meetings.