By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 11, 2009
SUNRISE, Fla., April 10 -- The Washington Capitals' players spent yesterday enjoying the South Florida weather and savoring what they had accomplished the previous night.
Coach Bruce Boudreau and his staff, however, were back at work, sorting through statistics and video of the team's two prospective playoff opponents, the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens.
The Capitals, who on Thursday night clinched the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a 4-2 win in Tampa and broke the franchise's season record for points with 108, could know as soon as tonight whether they'll host the Rangers or Canadiens in the quarterfinals next week.
A Montreal loss to Pittsburgh in regulation would clinch the seventh seed for the Rangers and set up a first-round meeting between New York and Washington. But if the Canadiens win or lose in overtime, the Capitals' opponent will be determined by the outcome of the Rangers-Flyers game on Sunday. Should New York and Montreal finish tied in points, the Rangers win the tie-breaker (victories).
The Capitals have fared well against both teams this season.
They went 3-0-1 against the Rangers, posting a win in overtime after a stirring comeback from a 4-0 deficit at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 23. But the Capitals have not faced New York since the arrival of Coach John Tortorella and the additions of Sean Avery, Nik Antropov and Derek Morris at the trade deadline. The Rangers are 10-6-1 since, and three-time Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist is always a threat to steal a series.
"They're an enigma," Boudreau said. "They have three new players and a new coach. Statistically speaking, they don't score an awful lot of goals, but they don't give up many; they have a great penalty kill and they've been playing playoff-type hockey for a while now."
The Capitals posted a 3-1-0 record against Montreal, with their only defeat coming after a last-minute defensive breakdown by Milan Jurcina. The loss on Jan. 10 also cost Boudreau a spot on the Eastern Conference all-star team's bench.
The Canadiens have struggled in the second half, plummeting to eighth place, and are 6-5-4 since General Manager Bob Gainey replaced Guy Carbonneau as coach on March 10. But they play before one of the league's largest and most intimidating home crowds and the media spotlight can prove to be overwhelming for homegrown players like José Theodore, who played for the Canadiens from 1996 to 2006. He's made only one start at Bell Centre as an opposing goalie -- an 8-5 loss with Colorado in October 2006.
"Their team is the same core that was first overall [in the Eastern Conference last season]," Boudreau said. "They've run into some injuries and bad luck. But they still had the wherewithal despite a very tough schedule to make the playoffs. That building is a very tough place to win and the intimidation factor. Referees get intimidated in Montreal."
But before the Capitals make their second straight playoff appearance, Boudreau has the difficult task of making sure his players don't suffer a letdown in the regular season finale tonight at BankAtlantic Center. The Florida Panthers were eliminated from contention Thursday night and will miss the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season.
"It's going to be the hardest game for the players to self-motivate," Boudreau said.
So he plans to remind his team before the game of the wins record that's at stake (the Capitals can set a new franchise mark with No. 51) and the individuals who are seeking milestones, such as Alex Ovechkin's pursuit of a second straight scoring title (he's four points behind Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin) and Tomas Fleischmann seeking his first 20-goal season (he has 19).
Boudreau also said he doesn't expect Donald Brashear (sprained knee) or Tom Poti (groin) to face the Panthers but that he intends to dress his full lineup. Because of the Capitals' proximity to the salary cap ceiling, the team can't call up any minor leaguers to give its star players a night off.
"We have to play as hard as we can mentally," said Boudreau, whose team is 5-0-1 in its last six games. "You don't want to get in the mode of getting into bad habits. We've played non-playoff teams for the past eight games. But we've kept on having to push because it ramps up so much in the playoffs."