By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; D07
The Washington Capitals conclude the most prolific regular season in franchise history on Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center, and although the game against Boston has little relevance in the standings, the substantive period comes in the hours following, when the team finally learns its first-round opponent and if Alex Ovechkin wins an offensive title or two.
The only certainty is the Capitals will play either Montreal or the New York Rangers.
The Canadiens (88 points) secured a playoff berth by picking up a point in an 4-3 overtime loss to Toronto and are in seventh place. With a New York win at Wachovia Center on Sunday against Philadelphia, Montreal stays at No. 7, and the Rangers would get the final spot. The Canadiens would be the eighth seed with a Flyers win.
"I know personally I'll definitely be watching and keeping an eye on what's going on," said defenseman Mike Green, who admitted he and several teammates peeked at the Flyers-Rangers score during intermission of the Capitals' 5-2 win against Atlanta on Friday. "I think everybody is watching. We want to know who we're playing so we mentally can get ready."
All the machinations for the final playoff spot have gotten the attention of Capitals players, many of whom are growing impatient to find out what kind of series to expect.
Although Washington won't play its first postseason game until later this week, the team's mindset can swing dramatically depending on the opponent.
"What other teams do is out of our control," forward Brooks Laich said. "It's exciting though. It's exciting for people to talk about the different matchups, people asking who'd you rather play. I really have no preference. Whoever we get, we get, so we'll keep watching and see what happens."
Apart from the mad dash for the final playoff spot, there are intriguing individual races and milestones to be settled on the final day of the regular season. Among those involving Capitals players, none has more significance than the competition for the Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies.
With two goals and an assist on Friday, Ovechkin took over the league lead in points and is tied for first in goals. The two-time reigning MVP has 109 points, one more than Vancouver's Henrik Sedin, who played late Saturday. Ovechkin and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos each has 50 goals. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby is second with 49.
"It's a big number, especially when you miss a couple games," said Ovechkin, who joined Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy as the only players with four 50-goal seasons in their first five years. "You always want to score 50 goals, but sometimes you don't have luck, sometimes you just miss chances."
The left wing hasn't been doing much of that during the Capitals' five-game winning streak. He has seven points over the past three games, including four goals, and is making a compelling case for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league's most valuable player despite missing 10 games because of injury and suspension.
If Ovechkin is voted MVP, he would join Gretzky and Bobby Orr as the only players to have won the Hart at least three times in a row.
Fittingly, Ovechkin logged his 50th goal off an assist from linemate Nicklas Backstrom, who quietly has crafted the most productive season of his career. The center also had two goals against the Thrashers for his third straight three-point game, and his 100th point of the season came via that pass to Ovechkin.
"It's great I think because he's a great goal-scorer, and I always just try to set him up," Backstrom said of Ovechkin. "He's a great player, probably the best player in the world, so it's always good to see other people reach their milestones."
Several other teammates stand to get theirs in Sunday's game. Most notable is Green, who can become the first defenseman in 17 years to have consecutive seasons with at least 20 goals.
Green leads all defenseman in scoring (19 goals, 56 assists) and was back on the ice on Friday after resting for two games. He's also among the front-runners for the Norris Trophy presented to the league's top defenseman.
Three other Capitals have noteworthy numbers well within their grasp. Right wing Alexander Semin is one goal from his 40th, Laich needs two points for 60, and defenseman Jeff Schultz is two points from a plus-50 rating.
"Anybody that follows hockey knows that's it's a pretty close race in a lot of individual stuff," Coach Bruce Boudreau said, "so if you can help your players get to that point without hurting the team, I think it's prudent upon you to try as a coach."