By Mary Cunningham
The Metro champ Caps rested regulars Nick Backstrom, John Carlson and T.J. Oshie against the New York Islanders — Alexander Ovechkin being Alexander Ovechkin, and perhaps looking to add to his league-leading goal-scoring total, played anyway. After all, staying healthy was more important than beating an Islanders squad that still needed two points to sew up home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
So the team went through the motions on Saturday night during a 3-0 loss at home with their eyes firmly fixed on the out-of-town scoreboard. It was the fourth time in six seasons the Capitals have been shutout during their regular-season home finale, a reflection of the fact that during the Ovechkin era the team normally has a playoff spot sewn up by now.
Thanks to the schedule makers, every team in the NHL played on Saturday night with the exception of the idle Anaheim Ducks. That meant the Capitals had their eyes on three separate games – Columbus Blue at Ottawa Senators, Carolina Hurricanes at Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins – involving their potential playoff opponents.
Before the night began, the Capitals were slated to face the Hurricanes in the first round. While the wheel of playoff fortune spun mightily over the course of the evening – at one point it appeared the Capitals might have to face the dreaded Penguins in the first round – by the end of the evening nothing had changed.
It was easy to feel like the Capitals had dodged a bullet. While the Flyers are Washington’s closest geographic rival, that doesn’t take into account the space the Penguins still rent inside the franchise’s collective psyche.
A return engagement with the Blue Jackets would have only been slightly less alarming. Fans in Washington know how close the team came to playoff elimination at the hands of the Blue Jackets in the first round last season. And truth be told, it’s better for the league too, as seeing head coach John Tortorella takes the Blue Jackets into Tampa to play the team he once led to the Stanley Cup provides all sorts of additional drama.
This leads us back to the Hurricanes, a “bunch of jerks” that had the nerve to try to make hockey fun again for fans that had experienced little more than regular season futility over the last decade. For the Capitals, it’s a no drama matchup, one that provides a simple storyline of champion vs. underdog.
If anything, Don Cherry’s ridiculous attack on Carolina’s “storm surge” generated some admiration on the part of Washington hockey fans. So until the first puck drops on Thursday night in Washington, there just isn’t any bile or animosity in this relationship. It’s probably worth examining just why that is.