- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

PHILADELPHIA | Playoff hockey isn’t set to begin officially for the Washington Capitals until April 13 or shortly thereafter. At that point players will start growing their beards, and the life and death of a season will be measured in seven-game increments.

But for all intents and purposes, the playoffs have already begun. Each game takes on greater importance and seems to mean more than those back in October and November. The Caps have a different mentality down the stretch this season, too.

“We’ve paid a price to get to this point. We’ve had a lot of frustrating days, and coaches have redone some things in our group and kind of shaped our team a lot differently,” winger Mike Knuble said. “It all goes back to last spring. Obviously, that was a format that was not going to work, and that was a very humbling time. So we’ve gone through tough times and had to adjust to a few things. The goal is to be playing well now in March and into April and playing your best hockey.”

Depending on how you look at it, this week’s schedule - which started with Tuesday night’s 5-4 shootout victory over the first-place Philadelphia Flyers that clinched a playoff spot - is either a curse or a blessing for the Caps. They next travel to Ottawa, which has nothing to lose, and playoff-bound Montreal this weekend as they gear up for games that are similar to playoff hockey, even if the stakes aren’t the same.

Naturally, a game at Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night was the perfect way to “get the rivalry juices going” for both teams, Flyers defenseman Sean O’Donnell said.

“Usually, you’re getting booed when you come off the bus,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “In the warm-up, there’s signs and there’s people yelling at you. But it makes for a good environment for a hockey game.”

It’s about as close as you can get to a playoff game in March - the top two teams in the Eastern Conference facing off in front of a packed house.

“I think both teams are seeing how they can handle pressure at this stage,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The Flyers clinched their spot in the playoffs over the weekend and are hunting for the top spot in the East. Boudreau acknowledges that with Philadelphia’s extra games to play, it’s an “uphill climb” to get the No. 1 seed, and he doesn’t really care - based, naturally, on last season’s flame out.

And while Flyers defenseman Matt Carle conceded that neither team is going to capture the Stanley Cup this week, what happens now could play a major role when the playoffs begin for real. Especially, if as players said, the Eastern Conference could very well come down to Philadelphia and Washington.

“Playoffs are a whole different part,” Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz said. “But you want to kind of leave something in their mind that if we do end up facing each other, that you know the type of games it’ll be, and you know how hard it is out there.”

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