Washington Capitals Could Be a Few Hours from First Place After Lightning Loss

Alan Zlotorzynski@@zlotsportsCorrespondent IIIMarch 6, 2011

Dennis Wideman returns to FLA
Dennis Wideman returns to FLAGreg Fiume/Getty Images

The Washington Capitals have somehow managed to scratch and claw their way through the middle portion of their schedule.

Dismal offensive performances, injuries, trades and all, the Capitals could reclaim first place in the Southeast Division with a win over the Florida Panthers this evening.

After winning three consecutive games and following two straight Tampa Bay Lightning losses, the Capitals trail the Bolts by just one point. The Lightning do not play today and lost 4-1 to the surging Montreal Canadiens last night.

The Lightning and the Capitals will meet tomorrow in Tampa in a game that will either allow the Caps to enjoy a three-point lead or see them leave the Sunshine State trailing in the division by one point.

“When you put wins together, you creep up on teams,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “You jump up in the standings when you string four or five wins together, six wins together. It’s a huge weekend because we’re only a point behind Tampa now for the division lead, which is huge. It’s a huge weekend for us."

Today’s game marks the return of Caps defenseman Dennis Wideman to Florida. Washington acquired Wideman from the Panthers at Monday's trade deadline for prospect center Jake Hauswirth and a third-round draft pick.  

Florida has taken two of three from Washington so far this season, but the Panthers have lost all three games since essentially trading away the team at the deadline. They are just 3-7 in their last 10 games.

The last time these two teams met, back on January 11, Wideman scored the game-winning goal in overtime for Florida against Washington.

The Caps are 2-0 since acquiring Wideman, Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm. While all three players have contributed nicely, Arnott has made the biggest splash in DC. He made the primary assist on the game-tying goal against the Islanders on Tuesday and scored the game-winning goal against the Blues on Thursday.

Besides the three new acquisitions making their first trip with the Caps this season, Washington is bringing along the fathers and brothers of Caps players. This is the annual “mentor trip” for Washington.

Most teams east of the Mississippi choose Florida as the spot for the fathers' trip. The dads and their sons usually take in a day of rest and relaxation with some fishing and golf.

The Caps are 5-1 in the last three seasons when their dads and brothers join them.

“The guys were talking and saying they [the dads] are our good luck charm,” Caps defenseman John Erskine said. “It’s a perfect time to bring them on this trip and hopefully get four points.”

The Red Wings and Flyers did the same thing two weeks ago and both teams left Florida tan and undefeated on that portion of their road trip.

Looking back, the Caps should consider themselves very lucky to be in this situation today. Their offensive futility has been well-documented over the past 39 games.

From the start of the season until December 1, a span of 26 games, the Caps went 18-6-2. Since then Washington has dropped into second place and hovered around the fifth and sixth seeds in the Eastern Conference with a record of 17-14-8.

Washington's captain Alex Ovechkin has found an offensive rhythm, and for Caps fans it's definitely a "better late than never" scenario. Ovechkin has 11 points in his past eight games and five goals in his past 10.

Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov has been out with an injury, which has allowed Washington’s other 22-year-old goalie, rookie Michael Neuvirth, to claim the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. Neuvirth has allowed just five goals in his past three starts, but recent Hershey Bears call-up Braden Holtby may get the start against the Panthers.

With games being played on back-to-back days, the 21-year-old Holtby could get the call tonight.

He'll be just fine for head coach Bruce Boudreau between the pipes. Holtby is 4-2-2 in eight appearances for the Capitals this season, and allowed just one goal in each of his three most recent starts with the Caps.

Washington is the only team in NHL history to have three goalies aged 22 years or younger record four victories in one season.

The Capitals are playing in their third set of back-to-back games in the last two-and-a-half weeks. The Caps are 4-4-2 in the first game of back-to-backs and 4-5-1 in the second game this season.

The key for the team to continue their winning ways is to start scoring in the first period. The Caps have not scored a first-period goal in six straight games but have still managed to win five of them. Washington is an NHL-best 18-16-4 when allowing the first goal.

They must also figure out how to get the power play clicking. 

Now ranked 24th in the league, Washington’s power play has officially reached dismal status. All of this could change in the next 16 games if the Caps can improve the power play to just okay. Not great, just okay, and they may look like an entirely different team in the playoffs.

One that could be a Stanley Cup contender. 

Bruce Boudreau must be breathing a sigh of relief, as many (myself included) began to question whether he was the right man for the job in Washington.

“We were treading water, but the league is so good," Boudreau said. Besides trailing Tampa by just one point, the Caps only trail the league-leading Vancouver Canucks by nine points, and the East-leading Flyers by six.

Boudreau continued, “The battle for up top is the same as the battle for the playoffs. There are an awful lot of good teams. You could see some switches this weekend again. Every night there are new things. Boston, who is on a big roll, too, they could overtake Philly by the end of the weekend. It’s an exciting time to be a hockey player."

And a Caps fan. Don’t blow it, guys.


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