- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2010

Even before the calendar turns to April, the Capitals are just one point away from adding a lofty title alongside their best-ever regular season performance: Eastern Conference regular-season champions.

With a single point earned in Sunday afternoon’s contest against Calgary, Washington clinches the top seed in its conference heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and with it, home-ice advantage through at least the first three rounds of the postseason.

The Capitals have already claimed the Southeast Division title, clinched back on March 11. On Thursday, the Caps reached the franchise’s highest regular-season point total in their history with their 109th point earned in a shootout loss in Carolina. However, Washington is still close to posting more accomplishments with eight games left in the regular season.

Besides the Eastern title, there are a few more incentives in the regular season: The team can match its regular-season record total for wins (50) on Sunday and also could earn the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the top regular-season team in the NHL, with nine points down the stretch. The Capitals currently own a nine-point edge on the Sharks heading into Saturday’s action, and should they hold off San Jose and Chicago for the top record, the team would hold home-ice through the entire playoffs.

But in terms of the postseason, the conference title is perhaps the most valuable, since it would ensure the Capitals will draw the lowest-seeded team left in the Eastern Conference for the first two rounds of the postseason and would hold home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals. The last (and only) time Washington was a top seed in the first two rounds in the playoffs was in the old divisional format of 1988-89, when the Caps won their only Patrick Division regular-season title — but that team got bounced by the Flyers in a six-game series in the first round.

However, with eight games still to play before the slates are wiped clean for the playoffs and the Caps will almost certainly match up against the last playoff qualifier for the Eastern Conference, the Capitals have some decisions to make.

Most importantly, with little left to accomplish in the regular season, the coaching staff will have to wonder how much to play the team’s regulars down the stretch. While the team could rest some of its stars, it also risks having the players get rusty at the most important time of the season.

“You know what? I wrestle with this all the time,” Boudreau told reporters after Wednesday’s win over Pittsburgh. “Should we be resting? Should we be not putting as much emphasis on it?

“I’ve seen teams that rest their guys, and then they stink in the first game of the playoffs. I think last year we didn’t put an emphasis on the end of the season … We lost the first two games [to the Rangers] until we got into a playoff mode, so I bounce it off both ways all the time, believe me. It’s what keeps me up at night.”

Ironically, the Capitals also will have some say in what team they draw in the first round as well, as they will play Atlanta and Boston — two teams that are fighting for one of those final playoff spots — twice in their final three weeks of the regular season. The Bruins and Flyers are tied for seventh place in the East, while the Thrashers would be the first team out, and sit just two points behind those two clubs. Montreal and New York also could be potential first-round draws for the Caps, but clearly the team will have a chance to impact the final team in the playoffs.

One thing that seems set is the club will tap Jose Theodore to start the playoffs this year, as the former MVP has recaptured some of his old magic in 2010, going 19 games (17-0-2) without a regulation loss, the longest such streak in the NHL in 10 years. Semyon Varlamov, who led the Caps to the second round last spring, hasn’t been bad in net, but also isn’t playing at Theodore’s level at the moment.

The team is in an unusual situation, having sewn up the divisional title at the fastest pace any team has since 1978, and now one point away from the conference’s top seed with eight games to play.

Six of those eight games will be played at home, with only short road trips to Columbus and Pittsburgh. But while the regular-season accomplishments are nice, the team has bigger goals in mind this year.

As Theodore put it earlier this month, “You just want to have that good stretch when it counts.”

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