With 20 games to go in the 2009-10 regular season the Washington Capitals are in a position they have never been in before: 1st place overall in the National Hockey League. The Caps, with a 41-13-8 record, have a one point lead over the San Jose Sharks and a three point advantage over the Chicago Blackhawks (who have a game in hand) in the race for the President’s Trophy. In addition to the trophy, first place in the NHL regular season carries with it home ice advantage for the entire playoffs as well as a $250,000 $350,000 bonus to the organization (h/t @JapersRink). So even though Washington seemingly has the Eastern Conference locked up (they have a 13 point lead over second place New Jersey) there appears to be much to play for down the stretch.
Two years ago, after Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach, Washington basically had to run the gauntlet to make the post season going 11-1 down the stretch to win the Southeast Division on the last game of the season before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime of game seven in the first round of the playoffs. Last season, Washington had a very good regular season and cruised from March and into April knowing they were going to be the two or three seed in the East. Then they struggled in the initial part of their first round series before rallying from a three games to one deficit to defeat the Rangers, eventually losing to the Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in round two, and once again in seven games.
So with 1st place in the Eastern Conference seemingly locked up and facing a tough upcoming 20 games over 40 days stretch, I talked to a couple of Caps on Wednesday to get their take on what they want to improve on, what they hope to accomplish before the post season, and if they are thinking about the possibility of capturing first place overall at the end of the year for the first time ever in Washington.
Forward Mike Knuble was surprised to hear about the Capitals current lead in the East and then provided some rationale as to why they have done so well.
“13 points? Is that what it is between first and second? This time when we come back maybe we’ll start watching the standings more because maybe you are anticipating who you might get in the first round but even that is going to fluctuate until the last day. I broke in the league with Detroit and they were President’s Trophy winning teams but I don’t remember a lead this big, our play wire to wire has just been so consistent, we haven’t fluctuated too much, we just kind of plugged along, won a ton of games…guys have been really consistent even with a few injuries here and there and guys have gotten suspended and other players have stepped up and played really well so it’s been a fun group, a fun year,” said the first year Capitals right wing, who has notched 23 goals in 50 games this season.
Knuble, who was on that Flyers team that defeated the Caps in the 2008 post season, when asked what the Caps could improve on felt that Washington needs to get back to dominating from the opening face-off, like they did for much of the early portion of this season.
“Our starts have been not so great even during that streak we were still pulling out games. Some of our starts were suspect and just a little bit better level of play for 60 minutes…our resolve when we do get down and ability to come back is uncanny. I don’t know how you put a finger on it but we have a great will to win and those are great things to have because we know it is not like the end of the world if we do go down. I’ve never played on a team that thinks that way, that just wills themselves to win games,” added #22.
“We want to be the best team and set yourself up come playoff time and give yourself any edge you can. I think we want to do more of the same, keep playing hard, keep playing well, and just try to be the best, that is what we want to do,” added right wing Boyd Gordon on the prospect of winning the President’s Trophy.
Knuble, though, made a point to say that the Capitals goals go far beyond the regular season.
“Guys have bigger goals than a good regular season so [the President's Trophy] will just be the first little thing we are trying to achieve and then there will be more to go. But to play well, take care of ourselves then we’ll get [first overall]. So now we have such a big lead and you say ‘what’s there to play for?’ But it is up to the guys in the room, keeping things honest, the coaching staff does a good job of keeping things honest and not letting things slide. There’s always something to work on, there’s always a bigger picture to work for so these guys have been around and tasted a little bit of playoff success and I think we are ready for more,” said the man who has 15 goals in the last 22 games playing on the first line with Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Gordon also pointed out that there is still about 25% of the regular season to go and that Washington can not get complacent.
“I think 20 games is still a lot of season and a lot can happen so we know in this league it is tough to win every night so we are not going to take things for granted, we are going to play hard and not get into bad habits if we have a big lead going into the playoffs. So it is one of those things where you have to be ready to go again and be in playoff form,” added the 2002 Caps first round draft pick (one of three first round selections that year), who is also one of Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau’s top penalty killing specialists.
As Boudreau has stated recently, the Olympic break came at a good time for his squad. Now with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Semyon Varlamov, and Tomas Fleischmann all eliminated from medal contention those guys can get a quick recharge before joining their well rested teammates back at practice (it sounds like the Olympians who played will be back on Sunday with Varlamov likely on the ice on Saturday).
“The break will serve us well too, a couple of guys are injured, one guy had surgery over the break, and as long as these guys come back from the Olympics in a good frame of mind and good health we’ll be okay,” finished Knuble on how he sees the stretch run playing out for the Capitals.
Another hot topic over the next week will be the NHL trade deadline. Caps General Manager George McPhee is in a different position than he was last year at this time in that he has lots of salary cap room and doesn’t have any major roster limits that might prevent him from moving a draft pick for a player. The problem though, this season, is that there aren’t a lot of teams in sell mode which will likely drive acquisition prices up. Toronto, Carolina, Edmonton, Columbus, Florida, and the New York Islanders appear to be the primary sellers at this point. Even though McPhee has much more flexibility this season, it doesn’t mean he will make a deal or two, but you can bet that the players are aware of what is going on as a critical day in the NHL season arrives next week.
“I guess you always have to assume they are going to [make trades], until they don’t. I’m glad it is not my job to make those decisions,” said Knuble on the typical mindset of the player before the deadline and the challenges he sees for McPhee in trying to help bring the Capitals organization its first ever Stanley Cup.