WASHINGTON — Maybe the lesson is nothing matters.
For years, the Capitals have had their game analyzed to death heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs. It happens every spring. The goaltending is shaky. The depth is limited. They are too hot, too cold. When will Washington ever be just right?
“It’s impossible to answer that question,” an exasperated Nicklas Backstrom said after a 2-1 shootout win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday at Verizon Center. “That’s pretty much all you guys are asking us. To be honest with you – we’ll see in the playoffs. We’ll see. But right now we’re feeling good and everyone is healthy. I wish I could give you the best answer I can, but you don’t really know.”
For now, the Caps don’t much care that last year they had the Metropolitan Division wrapped up by this point in the season. This time there are nine games to go still and even after Thursday’s win the margin is slim to win a division title.
Washington has 104 standings points, Pittsburgh 102 and Columbus 101. They are three of the four best teams in the NHL and two of them will be eliminated before the Eastern Conference finals even begin. That’s life under the league’s division-centric playoff system. But all three teams will still fight for the division title and home-ice advantage in the first round even if it doesn’t guarantee them a thing.
“I guess there’s some people that worry about momentum – or not momentum, but what people are thinking about going into a series,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “I don’t put too much into that. Whoever we play in the playoffs, I’m expecting a great series. Not going to worry about that too much.”
With their first shootout win at home, the Caps still have just one more regulation/overtime victory than the Blue Jackets (46 to 45). The two teams also play one more time on April 2 in Columbus. That tiebreak could come into play. A pair of defensemen scored on Thursday before the shootout – Seth Jones for the Blue Jackets, whose dad, Popeye, called Verizon Center home for two of his 11 seasons in the NBA with the Wizards, and Dmitry Orlov for Washington.
“We’re a couple of teams that have 100 points already. We’re two of those three teams for a reason,” Seth Jones said. “We’ve played phenomenal this year, so have they, but now it’s time to really gear down and start getting in that playoff mode with nine games left here. We both understand that. We both knew what this game meant standings-wise.”
Despite Caps players insisting they aren’t looking ahead to playoff matchups, no one wants to slip to No. 2 or No. 3 in the Metro. That will mean a first-round series against a team certain to finish in the top five or higher in the overall league standings.
Why make things harder on yourself? Beating a lower-level team like Boston or the New York Islanders will be difficult enough. The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champs, after all, and eliminated Washington in the second round last spring. Columbus is a young, talented team on the rise that should be good for years to come.
“Every win right now is huge. And we’ll see,” Caps coach Barry Trotz said. “Right now, it’s about finishing as high as we can in this division so you can give yourself every advantage.”
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