To a man, the Capitals made it clear that heading into Thursday’s game against the Florida Panthers, their focus is on winning to stay on target of reaching the playoffs. That there remains a slim chance of capturing the Southeast Division title is nice, they said, but the players didn’t want to look beyond the most pressing task at hand.
“I don’t think you look that far ahead, I think you just look at the immediate thing,” winger Mike Knuble said. “If we had won in Tampa, this might have shaped up to be an even crazier or bigger game, but I think we just worry about the immediate concern of winning the game. You have to take care of that before anything else can happen. If you don’t win the game a lot of other things can’t or won’t happen, so that’s the big building block.”
Florida (92 points) needs only one more point to clinch the division or for the Capitals (88 points) to fail to claim all four available to them. Washington could overtake the top spot in the Southeast if it were to win out and the Panthers fail to gain a single point, making the head-to-head meeting all the more intriguing.
While the third seed and home-ice advantage are still in reach, center Nicklas Backstrom said he doesn’t believe the Capitals are focused on what spot they could get.
“I don’t think we care what seed we’re in,” Backstrom said. “As long as we’re in the playoff — we know there’s good teams in there. I don’t think it matters, just got to focus on winning the last two games.”
Even if winning the division isn’t the fundamental goal at this stage with larger things at stake, it could present a conundrum. For example, say if things are tied late in regulation, a scenario Brooks Laich said he and Joel Ward talked about during Wednesday’s practice. Would they, as coaches, pull the goaltender and go for the win in regulation knowing that if Florida picked up a point it would seal the division title?
“I don’t think I would as a coach,” Laich said. “Because anything can happen — it can come back the other way and hurt you. I don’t think that’s going to be discussed before the game.”
Posed with the same scenario, Coach Dale Hunter didn’t go into many details of what he might do.
“We just play the game. We need to win and we’ll deal with it,” said Hunter, who was then asked if he would go for the two points or bring it up with the assistant coaches. “We’ll discuss it. We’ll go for the win, yeah.”