For the first time perhaps since the season began, the Capitals will step onto a clean sheet of ice for a game without the weight of staying in the playoff race or clinching a postseason berth on their shoulders.
They clinched the Southeast Division title and third seed in the Eastern Conference with Tuesday’s 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets, but Coach Adam Oates is cautious not to let the Capitals ease up in these final two regular season games.
That’s why, aside from getting Michal Neuvirth a start, the lineup will stay the same tonight and why, for the most part, he will keep players in the same roles with the same ice time to maintain their conditioning levels.
“We don’t want to let our game slip. Sometimes it’s hard to climb back up that hill,” Oates said. “We just want to turn the page and keep playing. We could start [the playoffs] Tuesday. That’s not normal rest even for the playoffs, so we don’t want to let anything start going in the wrong direction.”
While there’s the greater goal of looking ahead to the playoffs, Oates also wants to see his team put together a strong outing against the Senators, who are a possible first-round opponent.
Back on Jan. 29, the Capitals coughed up a two-goal lead and lost, 3-2, to the Senators. Then last week, Washington had its eight-game winning streak snapped with a 3-1 loss to the Senators in a showing that Oates dubbed “sloppy” and the team’s worst showing in several weeks.
Oates would like the Capitals to show Ottawa what they’re truly capable of both to stay the course, and to not give this particular foe any unnecessary confidence should the two teams meet in the postseason.
“I just don’t think we showed them who we are as a team,” Oates said. “We’ve played a certain type of hockey lately that’s been very productive to us. I want to make sure we have that type of game tonight to let them know this is the way we play, just in case.”