Forget the scoreboard-watching, forget the math. It’s very simple for the Washington Capitals on Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
Win in regulation or overtime, and they clinch a playoff berth as the Southeast Division champions. Anything less leaves plenty to chance in the season’s final week.
“It’s going to be in, or in a huge battle for the last couple games here,” right wing Troy Brouwer said.
At home against a Winnipeg team that trails them by one point, the Caps can erase any doubt about playoff hockey at Verizon Center next week.
“It’s huge and we understand it,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I think everybody right now [is] focusing.”
That kind of sharp focus was there for the Caps when they traveled to Winnipeg for back-to-back games March 21 and 22. Washington was 14th in the Eastern Conference then after a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Instead of falling apart, the Caps blitzed the Jets 4-0 and 6-1, serving notice that the Southeast race was far from over.
“We came out and we knew the magnitude of that week,” Brouwer said. “I’m sure they did too, but that was our season. At that point, we were quite a ways out of the playoffs and we needed to find a way back in and came up with a great effort.”
Coach Adam Oates called those games at MTS Centre a “good memory for us” because the Caps dictated the pace. But he also acknowledged both teams have changed since then.
Those confidence-building victories kicked off a 13-2-1 stretch for Washington, while Winnipeg fell off before picking up 11 of 12 points on a six-game home stand.
But one advantage in facing the Jets on Tuesday is eliminating the uncertainty of watching the out-of-town scoreboard.
“You don’t have to worry about somebody else helping you out or doing something for you,” Brouwer said. “You have your own destiny.”
Back before the third seed in the Eastern Conference, or any playoff spot for that matter, was within the Caps’ grasp, they saw two games at the Jets as the perfect way to make up ground.
“It was right in front of our face; we didn’t have to wait around, we didn’t have to wish for them to lose against other teams,” defenseman John Carlson said. “We can take care of everything ourselves, and obviously we put ourselves in position to make the playoffs and we just need to do it now.”
Again, the task is right in front of the Caps. But a few players Monday cautioned against putting too much emphasis on one game against the second-place Jets.
“There’s still three games in the season,” center Mike Ribeiro said. “Obviously [this is] a big game for both sides, and for us you beat them, you’re in. But you need to take that like, ‘OK, it’s not the end of the world,’ either.”
The Caps host the Ottawa Senators on Thursday and the Boston Bruins on Saturday to wrap up the regular season. They’re 1-3 against those teams this year.
“Every game is big, but you have to just go there and do what you do,” left wing Martin Erat said. “And if everybody’s going to do it, what we did last 10, 12 games, it’s going to be easy.”
The Caps have made hockey look easy lately, winning 9 of 10 to get to this point. Tuesday crystallizes the season, but there is a danger in making one game against the Jets the end-all, be-all.
“You do want to remind the guys that if we win this, we’re in. But we don’t want to say we have to win this,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We just want to continue playing the same way we have and just worrying about playing good hockey.”
Yet it’s Game 46 of the regular season, and a trip to the playoffs is incredibly close. The stakes don’t get much higher in this kind of situation, but the Caps have been playing meaningful games on the edge of contention for a while now.
“It’s been like that for at least a month now that if you don’t win those games, we’re probably out of the playoffs a long time ago,” Ribeiro said. “And we were able to stick together and play the right way, and able to put ourselves in position that we are for tomorrow’s game. You need to embrace those moments.”