In the final week of regular season play, there are a number of intriguing storylines pending for Caps’ fans, both with the overall scoring race between Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin and in the mad scramble for postseason qualification and seedings in the East.
Here’s a storyline I particularly like: the Penguins haven’t qualified yet. (I know, it’s a formality, but it’s still fun to think about a miracle collapse by Mario’s men.)
In no particular order:
*I’m hard-pressed to identify an April day that delivered more devastating news in one-two punch fashion than did Monday to the Montreal Canadiens. All they lost for the rest of the way was two of their best and most important defensemen, Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider. Schneider had powered the Habs’ power play back to respectability since coming over in a trade with Atlanta. Markov was sitting second only to Mike Green in points scored by a defenseman.
Montreal received this devastating news while residing in 7th place in the East, just a point back of 6th-place Pittsburgh. They gamely took a 2-1 lead over Ottawa into Monday night’s third period, only to squander it and the opportunity to shoulder aside the Pens for the time being to claim the 6th slot, and perhaps cement a spot in the postseason. This morning they have but a 3-point cushion over the Rangers and Panthers, and looming ahead for them are three closing toughies this week: in Madison Square Garden tonight, at Boston Thursday, and then a finishing home date with Pittsburgh. It’s quite conceivable that Montreal won’t improve upon its 92 points for the balance of the week; almost certainly that won’t hold onto 8th let alone 7th in the East.
Things are suddenly so sour for the Habs that Caps’ fans should root for Montreal in broken French the remainder of the week. Montreal played the Caps tough this season, but Capitals’ fans should want the Habs to qualify and finish 7th in the East while the Caps hold onto second place. When you consider the Pennsylvania ghosts of playoff agonies past (Philly, Pittsburgh) as alternative possibilities, or the Rangers with difference-maker Lundqvist between the pipes, an impact-blueliner-depleted Montreal club with shaky Carey Price or Jaroslav Halak behind them offers the most appealing matchup for the Red Nation.
It’s been a campaign of remarkable turmoil in this the quasi-centennial season of pro hockey in Montreal. It may well end with the Habs on the outside looking in at the playoffs. Another riot on St. Catherine’s Street?
* Can three Southeast teams qualify for the playoffs? It’s never happened before, but even if it were to, it’d change little among most hockey folks and their perception about this red-headed stepchild of hockey divisions. As such, this really isn’t all that as a storyline, but there is novelty to it. To put an exclamation point on the durable drek that is the Southleast, the Caps this week embark on a tour of NASCAR country, and it carries all the must-watch aura of a Pauly Shore Filmfest. I’d be surprised to learn if even the host players’ wives tuned in to the games this week.
The next question would be: could the Panthers half fill their rink for a slate of first-round playoff games? And: should Caps’ fans root for the Rangers and Habs to make the postseason and leave the ‘Cats once again outdoor recreating in the early spring Florida sun, followed most assuredly by the roster blowup led by the Boumeester free agency departure, surely followed by a ‘For Sale’ sign for the franchise . . . followed by, God willing, division realignment?
In a word, yes.
* Call this a Schadenfreude Special in Spring: Pittsburgh vs. Philly in a round one, steel-cage death match. A rematch of last spring’s Eastern conference finals, needed this spring only insomuch as it would mean one of our most hated foes would be guaranteed early spring tee times. Hopefully, such a series would last seven games, and M*A*S*H units required to tend to both clubs throughout. If the series’ games were scheduled on nights opposite the Caps’, our families wouldn’t see us for 10 consecutive evenings this spring. But odds are we’d return to them quite happy.
*A Hart Heat-up. It’s spring, so that must mean that Evgeni Malkin is thinking about Russian ladies in new spring outfits while skating, and not showing up on any scoresheets. Mere weeks ago, he held a double-digit lead over Ovi in the points race. This morning, his lead is down to two. Ovi is surging, Malkin is seasonally fading (again). One standout performance by the Reigning Hart holder in this week’s final three games ought to lock up a repeat acceptance speech.
*Can the Caps win two of their final three games on this season-concluding road trip, and thereby achieve 50 wins in a season for only the third time in franchise history? Should the Caps win out, they’d establish a franchise record for wins in a season. They’d also secure the second seed in the East.