Sunday, March 1, 2009

Caps Down Bruins In OT - Finish February 9-3-1

February has been a good month for the Washington Capitals and yesterday in Boston, they finished the month the same way they started it, by beating an Eastern Conference foe. Today was a two point win for the Capitals and even though they let Boston get a point, they did manage to finish out the regular season series against the Bruins 3-0-1. Given Boston's overall record to date is 42-12-9, you probably won't be surprised to learn the Caps are the only team in the league with a winning regular season record against the Bruins so far this year.

Between this afternoon's victory over the Bruins in OT and Thursday Evening's 4-3 win in regulation over Atlanta the Caps find themselves with the fourth best record in the league; firmly set for a solid run in the playoffs. Right now the Caps are in second in the Eastern Conference, they are 8 points behind the Bruins with 19 games left to play; they are also just two points ahead of the New Jersey Devils in the Conference standings but the Devils have a game in hand. If the season ended today the Caps would face the Florida Panthers in the first round of the playoffs, though there will likely be some churn between the # 6 and #10 teams in the division between now and April.

The Caps remaining 19 games break down like this:
- 9 home and 10 away;
- 18 against Eastern Conference Teams and 1 against a Western Conference Team;
- 12 against SE Division Teams and 7 against out of division opponents.

So far this season the Caps are 9-3-0 (0.750) against Southeastern Conference foes; and 33-8-5 (0.771) against Eastern Conference foes. Assuming the Caps play 0.700 hockey against the East in their remaining 18 games the Caps will finish with 110 points even assuming they loose their remaining contest against the Western Conference Nashville Predators. One hundred and ten points (110) in an 82 game regular season - not too shabby at all. Yet despite being on that trajectory, the Caps are in a dog fight for second place in the East, New Jersey is also on a tear and is also on pace for a 110 point season; Boston is on pace for an astounding 121 point season. So the Caps have to continue to play hard and not give up anything at all. The good news is that the Caps of 2008-2009 are that kind of team - a team who strives to live to their motto: "Good is not Good Enough." That's bad news for the teams they will play between now and the end of the season; likewise for the teams that will face the Bruins and Devils, as well as the Philadelphia Flyers who are 7-2-1 and as of this minute are beating the Devils 1-0. Don't expect the Bruins to continue to languish on the 3-4-3 pace they have had over their past 10 games; the Bruins' final includes 11 home games and 14 games against teams that are either "bubble teams" or teams whose playoff hopes are at most extremely dim right now.

Today's game at the "phone booth" against the Florida Panthers is for the Panthers what yesterday's game against the Bruins was for the Capitals - as close to a must win as possible if the Panthers are to have any hope of catching the Capitals for first place. The Caps have 85 points in 63 games and the Panthers have 70 points in 62 games played, even if the Florida Cats win today they till be 13 points (6 1/2 games) behind the Capitals, however if the Capitals win the Caps will be 17 points up (8 1/2 games) on the Panthers. Counting today's game the Caps and Panthers will play three more times this season so Florida still needs a lot of help from the other teams that will play the Capitals between now and April 11th when the two teams wrap up the season against each other at Sunrise, FL for that game to really matter. However, just as the Capitals have been the one team to be a thorn in the the Bruins' side this season, Florida has been a tough opponent for the Capitals; in their five meetings so far even though the Caps lead the series 2-1-0; the Panthers are one of the few teams to beat the Capitals at Verizon Center this year (December 1st 5-3). The last time they met was February 15th at Sunrise and the Caps won 4-2; the game where the Panthers ended Mike Green's record setting goal scoring streak. In that game, league leading scorer Alexander Ovechkin got a hat trick, including an empty netter to ice the victory, Eric Fehr also scored and Jose Theodore stopped 29 of 31 Panther shots to earn the win for the Capitals.

Today is a bit of a strange one for Caps fans, I suppose we should be rooting for the Flyers to beat the Devils in regulation and also rooting for the Flyers against the Bruins on Tuesday evening as well. There is no doubt we'll be looking for a regulation win ourselves against the Panthers. Carolina our opponent for Tuesday night lost last night to the Atlanta Thrashers and now have 69 points in 64 games. That puts the Hurricanes on pace for an 88 point season, they like Pittsburgh (on pace for 88.5 point season as well) and Buffalo are truly a "bubble team." Amazingly if the Hurricanes do get in and Florida who is 6-4-0 continues on the pace they are on, the "lowly" Southeast Division could find themselves with three teams in the playoffs, and the Penguins who went to the Stanley Cup finals last season could very easily find themselves on the outside looking in.

The Penguins will face Southeast Division teams 8 times during their remaining 19 games, including playing Carolina and Florida 4 times and the Caps once, so it's very likely that if the Panthers and the Hurricanes make the playoffs, the Pens would not do so. Clearly no one would have predicted that possibility before the start of this season. All of that of course is getting way ahead of ourselves. To be sure, the Caps Coaching staff won't let that happen for the team and we shouldn't let ourselves as fans get that way either.

There is no way to forecast whether the Caps will likely finish 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in the division right now; likewise it isn't possible with any level of confidence to forecast who they will face in the first round of the playoffs the Canadiens, Rangers, Panthers, Sabres, Hurricanes or Penguins. So it is important for the Caps to continue to play hard and dominate them all, if for no other reason then to reinforce the message they have been sending all year to their Eastern Conference brethren - "this is our year, this our time, and we're going to take it." That is important this time of year, this is the time of year to solidify your position if you are part of the league's elite and sow doubt in the minds of those you will possibly face in the playoffs. That's what the Caps have been doing, and that's what they need to continue to do.

Today, Florida will bring their "A" game, they got embarrassed yesterday in New Jersey and they will be working hard to make sure that doesn't happen to them today here in DC. The Caps went to Boston and beat the big, bad Bruins in OT yesterday. For the Caps to win today, they'll need to play just as hard if not harder against the Panthers. Today's game is a lot more important for Florida from a standings point perspective than it is for the Capitals; however, from a mindset perspective, today's game may well be more important for the Caps. By today's performance, the Caps have a clear opportunity to show the Panthers, the rest of the conference and even the entire league, that this year's Capitals' team has that killer instinct needed to put opponents away, not just in an individual game but in a series.

Two minutes to face off....


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