Maybe this is what the Capitals have needed all along — a fight to make the playoffs instead of another Presidents’ Trophy cluttering up the hallways of Verizon Center. This modus operandi has been suggested by devastated Caps in recent seasons, right after visits from the Ghosts of Quick Playoff Exits Past: Maybe if they had to work harder to get there, the Caps would appreciate it a little more.
The Capitals — the highly talented, highly paid, highly underachieving Capitals — certainly had to work hard this season to get there. They clinched a playoff berth in their penultimate game, a win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday night (with an assist from the Flyers). They will wrap up the regular season Saturday evening against the Rangers and only then will they know where they stand in the Eastern Conference and who their first-round opponent will be. They could be seeded third, seventh or eighth. Their opponent could be Boston, New Jersey or the Rangers.
And they’re not quite sure who will play in goal against any of those teams. The Capitals’ postseason spot came with a price: Michal Neuvirth, who has what the team calls a lower- body injury. That covers everything from athlete’s foot to a hip pointer, but since Florida’s Marco Sturm fell smack dab on Neuvirth’s knee, a knee injury might be a safe assumption. With Tomas Vokoun out with a groin injury — is that lower body or mid-body? — it leaves youngster Braden Holtby between the pipes, as they say, for Saturday’s game and perhaps beyond.
Holtby has the confidence of his teammates — “He’s gritty,” Matt Hendricks said after Friday morning’s brief skate before the team headed to New York. “He’s one of those tough western Canadian guys. Ever since he first came up, I’ve liked the way he’s handled himself.”
But with a goalie who is untested in the playoffs, home ice would be a boon in the first round. To get that, the Caps need to win the division to clinch the third seed. A victory in New York and a loss in regulation by Florida, which will host Carolina on Saturday, would take care of that. Otherwise, the Caps will be a seventh or eighth seed.
Of course, Washington has played some of its best hockey with its back against the wall. But then, the Caps have done it the hard way all season. After a 7-0-0 start, they were all over the map. They won when they should have lost. They lost when they should have won. They zigged when they should have zagged. At times they displayed an almost comical lack of joie de hockey.
And that doesn’t go unnoticed by their restless fans. When the club announced an increase in season ticket prices, fans wondered aloud, in e-mails, chat rooms and therapists’ offices: If this team, with this kind of talent, can’t make the playoffs, why on earth should I pay more for my seats next year? But if I give up my seats and they finally win the Stanley Cup . . . Argh!
Owner Ted Leonsis must be relieved. It isn’t a Cup, squeaking into the playoffs in the waning days of the season, but it beats the heck out of the alternative. When he bought this team, Leonsis tried one form of rebuilding, failed, and then tried another. And he asked Caps fans to be patient. Lo and behold, they were. Maybe it’s because they are hockey fans, and they’re used to being sent to the back of the line in a town that glorifies the Redskins. Maybe they just believed in Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee. In any case, they waited.
They’re still waiting. Granted, Leonsis and GMGM have given Washington its only sniff at any kind of playoffs the past few years. But Leonsis dangled the Stanley Cup in front of the red-clad hordes and now they want more. They’re only human. They stuck with this team when it was awful, paid more for tickets when asked, rocked the red when told. They’re ready for the big payoff.
And they’ve got to be wondering: Why is this team barely squeezing itself into the playoffs? Where is the depth at center and on defense? (Thank goodness it seems to be there at goaltender.) Were there really no opportunities at the trade deadline?
The Caps have had some key injuries this season, it’s true, but so have other teams. Exhibit A: Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. The good news is that Nicklas seems to be putting the “back” in Backstrom. He’s not in playoff form just yet, but the fact that he’s centering the top line after missing 40 games with a concussion is — pardon me — heady news for Washington. They also — stop me if you’ve read this sentence before — lost Mike Green for a significant portion of the season and he’s not back to his old self either. But, goalies aside, they are basically where they were at the beginning of the season.
Only the approach is different. No coasting in this time, no waiting, no down time. Will that be the difference? Is that the kick in the pads this team has needed? If so, that will make March and April a lot tougher to take.
If not, we can scratch one more excuse off the ever-shortening list.