- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 2010

For a preview of this year’s Stanley Cup Finals, some experts think fans need only watch the Capitals’ nationally-televised contest in Chicago on Sunday.

Washington, opening their four-game road trip Sunday afternoon, has a sizable lead in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, while Chicago is battling San Jose for top spot out West. While the Capitals have already clinched their third straight Southeast Division title, the Blackhawks are well on their way to their first divisional crown since 1992-93 with 16-point lead over Nashville heading into the weekend.

Both teams have had similar rises towards the top of the NHL standings, as the two teams feature some of the league’s young talent and two of the its most potent offenses. The Capitals lead the NHL with 266 goals scored this year and have outscored their opponents by 74 goals. For their part, as of Saturday afternoon, the Blackhawks are second in the league with 222 tallies and also just behind the Caps in goal-differential, outgunning their opponents by 56.

Similar to Washington’s dynamic duo of Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Chicago also features a top overall pick with a stellar sidekick to power its top line.

Patrick Kane, who was the first pick in the 2007 NHL Draft, has blossomed into a top scorer in the league, as his 26 goals and 49 assists have him ninth in the league in scoring with 75 points. Jonathan Toews, who was part of Canada’s gold-medal winning club in Vancouver, also has done well this year, scoring 20 goals and 35 assists in 61 games this season.

Both teams are also looking to decide on a top goaltender for the postseason as well. While Jose Theodore is seemingly going to be the No. 1 come playoff time with Semyon Varlamov’s recent struggles, former Capitals goaltender Cristobal Huet is battling Antti Niemi for the top spot in Chicago — with Huet taking part in Chicago’s last-minute loss to Philadelphia Saturday, meaning Niemi likely will be starting against the Caps Sunday.

“Hopefully they’re both playing well and hopefully we have a tough decision to make,” ex-Capitals defenseman and ‘Hawks coach Joel Quenneville told the Chicago Tribune Friday. “We feel that they’re both capable of getting the ball and taking charge. Both are likely to get a chance here this weekend [against Philadelphia and Washington] and we’ll go off of that.”

After both teams had disappointing ends to the 2008-09 seasons, the two have entered the top echelon of the league and look forward to the battle.

“They’re [one of the best teams] in the West, so it will be quite a test for us,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said after Friday’s loss to Tampa Bay. “It’s difficult enough to start a road trip on the heels of a win, and we didn’t do it. We have to dig deep tomorrow and we’ll have a good practice and get there and play better.”

With the game telecast on NBC, it also creates an unusual early start at 11:30 a.m. Central Time — added to the switch to Daylight Savings Time — disrupting a player’s normal routine and playing a game when teams usually are taking part in light morning skates.

“It’s an early start,” Capitals defenseman Tyler Sloan said. “I don’t think any of us have played that early since minor hockey. We’ll get in tomorrow and get a good meal and get some rest and we’ll have to have a few cups of coffee to get going in the morning.”

But the game should be a good display in front of a television audience and the always-loud crowd at United Center.

“Sometimes the best about being at home is going back out on the road,” veteran Caps forward Mike Knuble said. “We’re looking forward to playing in a threatening environment and a very difficult place to play. It’ll be a playoff-type atmosphere. It’s a game everyone’s been looking forward to.”