Playoff spot wrapped up, the pressure should be off the Washington Capitals now. No concerns about an early summer and locker clean out as soon as Sunday or Monday.
But Saturday night’s 6:30 game at the New York Rangers isn’t meaningless; the Caps can put themselves in position to win the Southeast Division title and earn the third seed and home-ice advantage in the first round if they beat New York. They’d also need the Florida Panthers (0-2-3 in their past five games) to lose in regulation against the Carolina Hurricanes (7:30 p.m. start).
“You don’t want to go into this game and be a little reluctant going in there and a little complacent. We’re going to go in, we’re going to try to win because we have a chance to clinch the division as well,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We need a little bit of help in that aspect, but at the same point, we think it’s very possible for us. Even if we don’t, we’re hoping to get two points and get some momentum going into the first round.”
Momentum especially considering that the Caps could see the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. That happens if they lose in any way and the Panthers and Ottawa Senators (3 p.m. vs. New Jersey Devils) each pick up at least a point.
“Well, I think we’re going to approach it like any other game,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “We want to try to go in there and play a good, solid road game and come out with two points. What happens around us we can’t control, but we’d like to go in there and give our best.”
The Rangers locked up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference much earlier in the week, but they could capture the Presidents’ Trophy and home ice throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a win. So they’ll go with Vezina Trophy front-runner Henrik Lundqvist in goal.
The Caps have Braden Holtby, the brash 22-year-old kid thrust into the starting role by injuries to Tomas Vokoun (groin) and Michal Neuvirth (lower body). Holtby has never faced Lundqvist before but could go up against him or past Vezina winners Tim Thomas or Martin Brodeur in the first round.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun. Obviously if I get the opportunity to play I like to bring my level up to that of other goalies,” Holtby said. There’s no better feeling than going up against the best in the world at your profession and trying to outdo them.”
Up and down the lineup the Caps want to outdo the Rangers and maybe send a message that will last into next week. This core group has won just two playoff series in the past four trips, both against New York.
“We know we can play them, and obviously we want to win,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.
Winning, with help, of course, could mean the favorable third seed and a showdown with the Devils in the first round, and the first two games at Verizon Center probably Wednesday and Friday.
“It would be nice, looking at the match-ups,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It could go either way. The playoffs, you never know what’s gonna happen. It would be nice playing at home because we’re obviously better at home, but the playoffs are nice.”
Playoffs are guaranteed now, thanks more to Brooks Laich and the Caps’ performance Thursday night in beating Florida than the veteran forward’s assurance he and his teammates would be playing beyond Saturday.
They will be, but with the Southeast Division as one more carrot, Saturday night the Caps are fighting for just a little more.
“You always want to finish as high as you can, so it’s really important,” coach Dale Hunter said. “We’re going to go out there and bust our tails again.”