Caps Have Inside Track on 2nd in the East

March 23, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

So for those of you Caps fans who follow the day to day news of the team via the Washington Post and Washington Times daily blogs, and kudos to Tarik and Corey for doing such a great job of keeping everyone up to date, you know that the flu bug has hit the team in full force lately, which could explain some of the up and down play by Washington. Mike Green, Jose Theodore, and Sergei Fedorov have had it  (and Fedorov may not totally be over it yet) and now Alexander Semin and Matt Bradley have it and may not play Tuesday in Toronto. Therefore, forward Chris Bourque was not sent back to Hershey and accompanied the team to the Big Smoke for Tuesday’s tilt with the Leafs.

Here’s some good news: With Florida’s OT loss Monday to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Caps can come within one point of clinching a playoff spot with a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night. That could come as early as Wednesday night should the Caps win in Toronto and then Florida not win in Buffalo the next night. The Caps magic number (any combination of points for the Caps and points not gained by Carolina) to clinch the Southeast Division title still stands at six.

Now here’s some even better news: The New Jersey Devils, who over the last six weeks had won 13 of 16 games to overtake the Caps for 2nd place in the Eastern Conference standings, have now lost 3 of their last 4 games and have 97 points with just nine games left after they were beaten, 4-2, by the Flyers tonight in Philadelphia (and anyone who saw that terrible 4th goal Martin Brodeur gave up to Simon Gagne from a bad angle has to be encouraged that #30 is not totally superhuman). Suddenly the Caps, who are just one point behind New Jersey with 8 games to go, may have the inside track on 2nd overall in the East, if they can be focused against some lesser opponents and not get overwhelmed by the flu bug. Meanwhile, the Devils have a much tougher schedule. Here is how it looks for each team the rest of the way:

Washington: @Tor, TB, NYI, Buf, Atl, @Atl, @TB, @Fla

New Jersey: @Chi, Car, @NYR, @Pit, TB, @Buf, Tor, @Ott, Car

Certainly second place would be big for the Caps because if they do manage to win the first round they are assured of home ice in the second round of the playoffs. But Washington needs to bear down in their last eight games against teams that are not likely to make the playoffs (Florida still has a chance but their OT loss to Carolina tonight did not help their cause). This year the Caps have played their best hockey against teams currently in the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. By the way, the last time the Caps won a playoff series was 1998, meaning current owner Ted Leonsis has yet to see his team on the winning end of the traditional series ending hand shake. It sure seems that it is time for the Caps to reward their owner with at least one series victory this year for all of his hard work with this franchise. So there is some extra motivation for Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and his squad, not that they need it.

The other big bonus to finishing 2nd in the Eastern Conference is Washington would likely get either the Rangers, Montreal, or Florida instead of Carolina or Pittsburgh, who have been red hot, in the opening round. I still like the Caps chances against Carolina if they had to play them but I have no desire to see Washington face favorite NHL son Sydney Crosby along with Evgeni Malkin and company in the first round (even though the Caps are 3-0-1 against the Pens this season).

Speaking of hot teams and having momentum going into the playoffs, on Hockey Night in Canada Radio Monday afternoon co-hosts Jeff Marek and Kelly Hrudey had Bill Lindsay, TV commentator for Florida, on for a segment and they were discussing the fact that teams like Carolina and Pittsburgh are already in playoff mode and that it would likely help them in the first round. There was talk of the top three teams in the East stalling lately (Bruins, Devils, and Caps) but Lindsay was quick to point out that with the skill level those three teams have they can turn it around quickly.

As for playing well down the stretch translating into playoff success, in theory, I can see their point.  However, I’ve been closely watching the NHL playoffs since 1983 (the first year the Caps made it) and I can tell you that hot or not, the playoffs are a totally different animal and just because you are on a roll at the end of the regular season does not mean you will carry that play into the postseason. I can give you three quick examples of when that was not the case:

1. 1989 Washington Capitals- Former GM David Poile traded for Dino Ciccarelli, Calle Johansson, and Bob Rouse at the trade deadline and the Caps went on a tear down the stretch to win their first and only Patrick Division title. Their reward:  they were ousted in the first round, 4-2, by the Flyers, primarily because of bad goaltending (Pete Peters).

2. 2008 San Jose Sharks – San Jose acquired defenseman Brian Campbell and forward Bill Guerin at last year’s trading deadline and only lost 2 games in regulation the final six weeks of the season (14-2-3) and many declared them the Stanley Cup favorites at the outset of the post season. However, they had to go 7 games to barely beat a limping into the playoffs Calgary Flames team and then they were beaten in six games by the Dallas Stars in round two.

3. 2008 Washington Capitals – Alex Ovechkin and company won 12 of their last 13 games to win the Southeast Division title on the last game of the regular season. The Caps were the talk of the league and looked poised to do some damage in the post season despite it being the team’s first playoff appearance with the Great #8. Their reward: a very banged up and tired team quickly got behind three games to one early against the Flyers before rallying but falling in overtime in Game 7 (with some help from Don Koharski and Paul Devorksi!).

I could give you several other examples but I think I made my point that when the regular season ends everything prior, except for injuries and fatigue, go out the window. So given that Washington has been playing stress free hockey the last several weeks and has shown all season that when they are challenged they typically rise to the occassion and play well, I still prefer the way Washington is heading into the postseason better this year than last, especially if the team can stay healthy over the last eight games. Add to that the fact that Washington’s young players have playoff experience this year (I don’t think they knew what they were in for last season) and I still believe we will see the first ever playoff series win under the ownership of Leonsis. And if the Caps can get out of the first round then anything can happen at that point.