Brooks Laich didn’t back down. With two games left and the Washington Capitals still in control of their playoff hopes, he didn’t quite sound like Joe Namath but made sure everyone knew his stance.
“I have a belief we’re going to be in the playoffs and that’s it,” the center said. “I don’t want to discuss any scenario that we’re not. My belief is that we’re going to be in the playoffs.”
Call it a guarantee, call it confidence, call it whatever you want. Now it’s up to Laich and the Capitals to get it done, starting with Thursday night’s showdown with the Florida Panthers.
They still have a slim chance at the Southeast Division title, but that would take four points by the Caps and none by the Panthers. Tied with the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth spot at 88 points, the focus for Washington is on just getting in.
“Scenarios aside, we’re trying to win one hockey game. If it’s in regulation, great. We just have to win the game,” Laich said. “We’re not worried about Buffalo doing this or that or who’s going to win or lose. The only thing that we can control is what we do, and we can’t control Buffalo’s schedule or Florida’s. Our sole focus is on winning a hockey game [Thursday], whether it’s regulation, overtime, shootout. Just win.”
Going into overtime or a shootout would snuff out the division-title hopes, but Laich and forward Joel Ward discussed going as far as pulling the goalie to win in regulation and decided ultimately that might not be the best idea.
It would be an interesting situation if the Caps and Panthers are tied late in the third period Thursday. Dale Hunter hockey so often has been about holding on, either to a lead or to a tie score to pick up a point.
“We just play the game. We need to win, and we’ll deal with it,” the Caps’ coach said. “We’ll discuss it. But we’ll go for the win, you know.”
Florida, which leads the league with 18 points accumulated from overtime losses, doesn’t need to win. Just getting a point eliminates the Caps from hanging a fifth straight division championship banner.
And while Laich said it would be nice to have a chance at capturing the Southeast and securing home-ice advantage in the first round, it’s about surviving, advancing and doing everything possible to ensure Saturday’s matchup with the New York Rangers isn’t the final game of the season.
“I think the last couple games we’re just focused on winning some hockey games. It doesn’t matter who you play against,” defenseman Roman Hamrlik said. “It’s a crucial game for us. We are in a good situation, I think. We have to look at it one game ahead, and it starts [Thursday] night.”
It’s a “simple life,” Laich said. Everyone admits watching the scoreboard to see what other contenders are doing, but on a game day the mindset is to concentrate on what defenseman Mike Green said was taking care of business.
If the Caps manage to do that, Laich will look like a prophet, even if his playoff guarantee was just the confidence of a guy who doesn’t want to be sitting at home next week.
“I don’t know how you can be in this business if you think otherwise, Laich said. “You play with confidence always, and you always believe in your group. I don’t know how you can be here without that.”
• Stephen Whyno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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