Capitals look for long run of a home-ice advantage

"The fans [are] unbelievable right now," said Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, right. "It's crazy." (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

The night before training camp opened last September, Coach Bruce Boudreau stood in a ballroom filled with roster players and prospects. The Washington Capitals' goals for the 2009-10 season, he told them, are to win the Southeast Division, the Eastern Conference, the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

"So far," Boudreau said Saturday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, "we've got one of them and we're on the verge of two."

The Capitals can clinch the first regular season conference title in the franchise's 35-year history Sunday afternoon by earning a single standings point against the reeling Calgary Flames, who have dropped three of their past four games, including a 5-0 defeat Saturday in Boston.

Winning the conference, though, would have more significance than simply making history and achieving the second of Boudreau's four preseason goals. The No. 1 seed in each conference is guaranteed home ice throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs, which, in theory, gives the players on the home team a comfort level advantage and the coaches a tactical edge.

"It's huge," defenseman Tom Poti said. "We love our home cooking, and we love to play at home in front of our crowd. We get amped up a little more to play in front of them."

The top seed would mean Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 in each round of the conference playoffs would be at Verizon Center, where they're a league-leading 27-4-4, have outscored opponents, 139-90, and are backed by one of the league's loudest crowds. Interestingly, their league-leading power play is even more dangerous (26.4 percent vs. 25.5 on the road) and their struggling penalty kill is markedly better on home ice (84.8 percent vs. 74.4 on the road).

Alex Ovechkin said playing in front of the boisterous crowds on F Street -- the past 50 games have been sellouts -- serves as a major source of motivation for him and his teammates.

"The fans [are] unbelievable right now," he said. "It's crazy. If we are losing the game, the fans keep pushing us because they want free wings. It's pretty sick when everyone screams 'Unleash the fury.' My first year, there was probably three people in the stands. Second year, five people. Right now it's 20,000 people."

Capacity crowds aside, Boudreau and his players also noted the importance of hosting Game 7 -- even if that advantage hasn't been reflected in the final score the past two seasons.

"You hope you don't have to win it in Game 7," Boudreau said. "But that's where the advantage comes in."

David Steckel added, "It's a big deal because, historically, the odds are in your favor in Game 7 if you have home ice."

The Capitals, however, have yet to take full advantage of it under Boudreau. They're 6-6 at Verizon Center in the playoffs the past two seasons, and 1-2 in Game 7s, including a crushing 6-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins last May. (Throughout the league last season, home teams went 2-4 in Game 7s).

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