WIll the Caps make the playoffs?
When the Capitals woke up this morning, they looked at the NHL standings and saw themselves second from the bottom with a 10-14-1 record and 21 points. Only the Florida Panthers [7-14-6, 20 points] were below them.
In the Southeast Division, which they may have to win just to get into the playoffs, they sit in fourth place, 10 points behind the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes, whom they visit tonight in Raleigh.
A regulation win and the Caps are back where they were on Tuesday morning, eight points behind the Canes. A regulation loss and you can pretty much kiss a Southeast title goodbye.
“I would hope they are feeling the pressure,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “I would hope they do know the standings. If they don’t, that’s not part of being a pro.”
For a team that cruised to four straight Southeast Division titles from 2008-2011 and has made it to the playoffs five straight years, this is unfamiliar ground.
“The expectations with this team over the last couple of years have been very high,” Troy Brouwer said. “We put very high expectations on ourselves and we're not meeting them right now and the fans understand that and they see that."
Judging from the first half of the season, 52 points could be the magic number to get into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Two games over .500 could get you in; three games over .500 should.
That means in their final 23 games the Caps would need to play six or seven games over. 500 to have a chance at a sixth straight playoff berth.
“To be honest with you, yeah, I look at the standings,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Twenty-three games left, we just have to win more games.
“It's not over yet, it's just the middle of the year. But [tonight’s] game is very important for us, and probably next week all this road trip is gonna be very important for us. We have to take many as points as we can.”
Beginning tonight, six of the next seven games for the Caps are on the road. They follow tonight’s game in Carolina with a visit to Boston on Saturday, a home game with Buffalo on Sunday and trips to Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, Winnipeg and the Rangers.
It’s not a stretch to think the Capitals need to win five of those next seven games and will need to win all three games of their games against their division rivals. It begins tonight against a Hurricanes team that outplayed them in a 4-0 win Tuesday night at Verizon Center.
“It’s not only huge for points, but huge for morale,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said, “and that’s what this team needs right now. If we’re going to lose we need to lose giving a good effort.”
“We have to emphasize it as a must-win because they're the team we're trying to catch in our division,” he said. “We can't drop any more points, especially against these guys.”
As big as tonight’s game is for the Capitals, the thought of making up a 10-point gap on the Hurricanes seems implausible. That’s why they are now setting their sights on the eighth-place Rangers, who sit seven points ahead of them.
“If you make a run and get in the playoffs it’s hard to stop a team like that,” Caps left wing Jason Chimera said.
“Look at last year. We squeaked into the playoffs [as the seventh seed], beat Boston in the first round and came within a goal of beating the Rangers. You just need to get in the top eight. Look at L.A. They get in with the eighth spot and they’re Stanley Cup champions. As long as you get in the dance, that’s the big thing.”