- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

Brent Johnson vividly remembers his first playoff start — a 2-1 overtime loss to Colorado in the 2001 Western Conference finals for St. Louis.

He replaced an ineffective Roman Turek for Game 5 and made 34 saves before Joe Sakic scored in the extra session to send the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Johnson will be in net for the Washington Capitals tonight when they play host to the Carolina Hurricanes with first place in the Southeast Division in the balance. There haven’t been meaningful games like this one this late in the season at Verizon Center since before the lockout and before Johnson joined the team.

“It is awesome,” Johnson said. “Everyone is feeling pretty good in here. The mood in the room is very lively, and everyone knows for us to continue feeling this way we have to keep winning.”

Johnson is not alone with his playoff experiences, but the Caps have one of the youngest rosters in the league. Only six players who will suit up for the team tonight have postseason experience.

Going a step further, nearly all of the remaining players, save for John Erskine and Matt Pettinger, have never been a part of an NHL playoff push. They have never been in a game with serious playoff implications in the final third of the season.

“It is good, and it’s bad,” captain Chris Clark said. “It could be useful because we have so much youth and enthusiasm, but then again if you have guys who have been through it, it is good to have that experience. It could work both ways.”

Added defenseman Mike Green: “I think that just makes us more hungry to do it. I am excited. I am just excited for this stretch. I remember in Hershey [in the American Hockey League] the stretch we went on after Christmas and the journey through the playoffs — it was the best time of my life. I want that again.”

Should the Caps not add any veterans, they will rely on the ones they have for direction. Donald Brashear, whose leadership skills are undervalued outside the organization according to many in it, has the most playoff experience on the team and has been in several different situations.

Goaltender Olie Kolzig is the lone player who has been with the Caps since their most recent trip to the playoffs in 2003, and he can provide perspective about playoff hockey in this town back to the mid-1990s.

Two of the team’s free agent signings in July, Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti, know all about fighting for a playoff spot. They were both on a New York Islanders team that needed a shootout victory in the final game of the season last year to secure the last spot in the Eastern Conference.

“Obviously experience is something you want to have on your side, but we still have great leaders in here,” Brooks Laich said. “Experience isn’t something that we have a lot of but we’re not lacking either. We are a young team, but we think our energy is going to pay off.”

Veteran help also could come from within should Clark, who was part of Calgary’s Stanley Cup Finals run in 2004, and defenseman Brian Pothier, who saw postseason action with Ottawa, return from injuries.

While the Caps may be short on playoff and stretch-run experience at the NHL level, eight members of the team, including Green and Laich, have been part of the postseason with coach Bruce Boudreau at the AHL level. Seven of them were part of the 2006 Calder Cup champions with Boudreau at Hershey.

They all remember Eric Fehr’s overtime goal in Game 7 against Portland to propel the Bears into the finals. They fondly recall Kris Beech scoring in a game against Milwaukee in the finals when he and Joey Tenute crashed into the back wall in celebration hard enough that a plexiglass panel came undone.

“I think we can definitely draw off of that,” Laich said. “We’ve been through tough situations with Bruce. We’ve been through winning streaks as well, and we’ve got accustomed to winning with him.”

The game against the Hurricanes is one of 13 against division foes in the Caps’ final 27 contests of the season. Considering the crowd was near capacity Saturday night against Atlanta, it should be a festive atmosphere at Verizon tonight with first place at stake.

After three years of consecutive last-place finishes in the division, it should provide quite a contrast from February games since 2003.

“It’s been a few years,” Kolzig said. “To have it feel like a playoff game with first place on the line — yeah, it is good to be back in that hunt again. There’s no question.”

Added Johnson: “It is night and day [from the past two seasons]. It is completely different, and now we have a chance here. We have to make good on it.”

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