- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

Tonight's game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C., will be the biggest of the season for the Washington Capitals until Sunday's against Edmonton … and Tuesday's against Edmonton … and so on until April 13, when they end the regular season against New Jersey.

The struggling Caps have no room for error in the playoff hunt and no guarantee they'll make it. They used all their mulligans earlier in the season losing at an uncommon pace for this team and sometimes finding novel ways to do it.

The team the Caps have to catch is Southeast Division leader Carolina, if Washington is to have much hope of advancing beyond the first playoff round. The six division winners get home ice as a reward in the first round and play against the bottom half of the group, which means avoiding the likes of Philadelphia.

Washington was eight points behind Carolina before the Hurricanes played in Pittsburgh last night and will have two games in hand. The Hurricanes have 16 games left, the Caps 18 and Washington could use some help in catching the front-runners. If the Caps lose tonight, they would be shooting for one of the three slots still to be decided in the Eastern Conference.

"There shouldn't be any question about being up for the game. Games in the regular season don't get any bigger than the one [tonight]," said wing Ulf Dahlen. "We can close the gap by beating them, but we can't have any letdowns. The bottom line is, we have to win some games."

Jaromir Jagr brought up the touchy subject of points that have been kissed off by lackluster play. He zeroed in on one game but might have been talking about a dozen or more that have been lost that way this season.

"We screwed up some games, like at home [Monday] against Toronto," Jagr said, referring to the Maple Leafs rallying from a 2-0 deficit for a 3-2 victory. "We should have two more points. We made mistakes and we lose the game. We didn't finish them, that was the problem. If we scored the third goal, it would have been over."

Jagr, who has been on a torrid stretch since a few weeks before the February Olympic break, believes the outcome of tonight's game depends on him.

"If I feel good, I'm pretty confident that I can get scoring chances and score goals," he said. "I don't worry about who I play against, I worry about myself. If I feel good, I'm confident of my game."

Coach Ron Wilson appreciates the importance of tonight's game.

"It obviously will have implications on the division title, but does it solve the playoff situation? No," Wilson said. He added that getting a victory, or at least a tie tonight, was pretty much a necessity if the Caps have any hope of winning a third straight division championship.

The date in the thoughts of many is March 19, the trading deadline. If the Caps are in the playoff hunt, will they go shopping? If not, it will be time for a garage sale. "Does it enter your mind? Yeah, of course," said 39-year-old center Adam Oates. "That's why I say you've got to be professional and play well." …

Wilson offered some good news on the medical front. He said the cast on Dainius Zubrus' broken right hand was to be removed yesterday and the wing could play as soon as tonight if he felt comfortable.

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