ARLINGTON, Va. – If the season were to end today, the Capitals would be playing the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The season does not end today, but as the Caps prepare to host the Hurricanes on Tuesday (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington) in the first game of a home-and-home with Carolina, a potential playoff meeting is sure to be on the mind of all the coaches and players.
Washington currently sits in first place in the Metropolitan Division, holding a one-point lead over the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps have a game in hand over Pittsburgh and also play the Islanders in the season finale. If they cannot lock up the division before then, that last game may well prove to be for the division crown.
Carolina meanwhile sits four points behind Pittsburgh and three points ahead of the second wild card team, the Montreal Canadiens, with a game in hand.
A lot can happen in the final two weeks of the season, but a Caps-Canes first-round series is a very realistic scenario.
So how do you approach a regular season home-and-home against a possible playoff opponent?
For the Caps, it provides them the opportunity to keep experimenting with lines and defensive pairings. The injury to Michal Kempny has left Washington’s blue line in flux. If he can find combinations that are successful against the Hurricanes, it could ease the fears of many who are wondering how the Caps can win without one of their top defensemen.
For Carolina, this is a measuring stick game to see how the team handles playing the defending champions who, before the loss of Kempny, seemed to be rounding into playoff form.
As far as the players are concerned, to a man they said playing a potential first round opponent would not change how they prepared or approached this game. Having said that, don’t be surprised if this game is a bit more contentious than normal as both teams try to send a message to the other.
Here are the lines from morning skate:
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Tom Wilson
Carl Hagelin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – T.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana – Lars Eller – Brett Connolly
Andre Burakovsky – Nic Dowd – Travis Boyd
Christian Djoos – John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik – Nick Jensen
Braden Holtby starts
Head coach Todd Reirden began shuffling lines on Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers and he decided to stick with Hagelin on the second line. That may also have something to do with the chemistry that Vrana and Connolly seem to have together. Connolly assisted on Vrana’s breakaway goal that put the game away on Sunday.
Expect more defensive shuffling
The defensive pairs look the same as they did to start Sunday’s game, but you can expect more shuffling as Reirden tries to find the right combination. Djoos got 13:47 of ice time Sunday despite being on the top pair. It seems likely his time will be limited a bit again on Tuesday as he has struggled since coming into the lineup in place of Kempny.
Also of note, Tyler Lewington was sent back to Hershey and Jonas Siegenthaler was recalled. The Caps are very close to the salary cap and Lewington had a lower cap hit than Siegenthaler. They needed to wait until Monday before they could recall Siegenthaler. While Lewington was unlikely to get into the lineup, Siegenthaler may get a look to see if he fits into the team’s top six now with Kempny out long-term.
Watching the standings
The Islanders will also be in action on Tuesday as they play the Columbus Blue Jackets. Should the Caps lose, New York will have a chance to reclaim first place. Two points for Washington will ensure they retain first place in the division regardless of the result in Columbus.
The Caps can punch their ticket to the playoffs on Tuesday if they win and both Montreal and Columbus lose in regulation.
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