It is this simple, Caps fans. A win in Toronto tonight and the Washington Capitals will clinch their fourth straight Southeast division title. If it loses, Washington can still finish anywhere from first to fifth in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
Washington managed to win two out of three at home last week despite playing less than stellar hockey. It even managed to tie the Philadelphia Flyers atop the NHL's Eastern Conference with 103 points.
Washington and Philadelphia (46-22-11) share identical records, However, the Flyers hold the tiebreaker as they have the greater number of games won, excluding games won in the shootout (NEW for 2010-11). This figure is reflected in the ROW column when reading the NHL conference standings on NHL.com.
Washington leads the very hot Tampa Bay Lightning by four points as the Caps, Bolts and Flyers all have three games remaining. Tampa Bay has won five in a row and is coming off a 1-0 shutout win over the desperate Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday evening.
Tonight’s task will not be easy. Currently the No. 10 seed, the Toronto Maple Leafs are still alive for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Toronto is currently mired in a franchise record five-year playoff drought. It trails the Buffalo Sabres by six points and a loss tonight would end its season.
The Leafs have won three in a row and must win all three remaining games to make the playoffs. They also need a lot of help. The Sabres must also lose all three of their remaining games in regulation or the tally will run to six straight seasons without appearing in the Stanley Cup playoffs for Canada's second most-storied franchise.
The Caps are hurting at the blue line, even though they have won five of their last seven games.
Dennis Wideman will be out for a prolonged period with a lower body injury and Mike Green missed his 17th straight game on Saturday as he recovers from a head injury.
The Caps spent the last three games playing with just five defensemen in the third period. Wideman left last Tuesday's game, John Erskine departed on Thursday and Tyler Sloan left Saturday's tilt against the Sabres.
Erskine and Sloan were injured but are expected back soon as both made the trip to Toronto.
Tom Potti, who has averaged the second most amount of ice time over the last three seasons is expected back at any time. Potti has been out since January 12 with a groin injury. Stepping up in all of the injury madness has been rookie John Carlson.
Carlson has two goals and nine points in his last nine games. With a pair of assists in Saturday’s game against the Sabres, Carlson has matched a single-season franchise record for most points by a rookie defenseman, a mark that has stood for nearly three decades.
Robert Picard notched 37 points as a rookie in 1977-78 and Greg Theberge matched it in his rookie season of 1981-82. Carlson now has seven goals and 37 points in his rookie season, and he has three games in which to claim the record for his own.
Offensively, Mike Knuble and Alex Ovechkin remain hot-handed. Ovechkin’s overtime winner on Saturday was his 30th goal of the season, marking the sixth consecutive season in which he has reached that plateau.
The club record is nine straight 30-goal seasons, set by Mike Gartner. With points in 16 of his last 19 games, Ovechkin has nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points during that stretch.
Knuble has nine points over his last seven games and three goals in his last two games.
Still undecided for Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau is which of his three young goalies will start the playoffs for Washington. Michael Neuvirth was shaky at best on Saturday against the Sabres, especially when he allowed a soft shot from the blue to enter the net with no traffic in front.
Both Semyon Varlamov and Neuvirth have good numbers in their recent outings, but this is not necessarily a case of quality numbers versus the kinds of goals both Neuvy and Varly have allowed in recent starts.
Both have allowed soft goals at bad times in recent outings, and with the playoffs coming up next week, there has to be concerns on whether either is playoff-ready.
From all indications, Braden Holtby will not factor in the decision-making process. It was during the Caps' last trip to Toronto where Holtby began to make noise back in January.
Holtby made 18 third-period saves and 35 for the game as the Caps beat the Leafs, 4-1, on an Ovechkin hat trick.
I am not a mind reader, but I have to think Boudreau is leaning towards Varlamov after Neuvirth’s performance on Saturday. Varly does have playoff experience and is the rested goalie.
Whoever gets the start tonight will do so against a hot team and in a hostile playoff atmosphere. Tonight’s game is huge, Caps fans, and could go a long way in deciding which one gets the nod next week.
The Caps are 1-1-1 against the Leafs this season, and they will need a solid effort tonight. Even Boudreau knows this could be a tough win tonight in Toronto. Toronto has won six of its last seven games and it has lit the red light frequently in doing so.
Toronto has 25 goals over that span and has scored nine goals in its three previous meetings with Washington this season.
“They’re playing as good as any team in the league,” says Boudreau of the Maple Leafs. “And they’re probably the highest-scoring team that we will have faced, the most offensively gifted team—other than Philadelphia—in the East." (Quote via Washingtoncapitals.com)
The Capitals are 10-2-2 this season against Canadian teams and 5-1-0 in Canada. Washington has scored 47 goals (3.36 G/G) and allowed 28 goals (2.00 GA/G) in 14 games against Canadian teams.
Washington is now 16-6-2 in its last 24 road games. The Capitals have allowed just 49 goals in those 24 contests (2.04 per game). In 16 of their last 24 road games, the Caps have allowed two or fewer goals.