Canes losing time to make up ground

Carolina has seven games left in the season to reach the playoffs

Staff writerMarch 29, 2011 

Alex Ovechkin says he's ready to go, ready to play.

Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau is happy to hear that from this star forward, but he wasn't promising that Ovechkin will play tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verizon Center (7 p.m., FSCR).

Ovechkin sat out the past three games to rest an undisclosed injury that has been called a "nagging ailment." He returned to practice Monday and pronounced himself ready to go again, but his coach said it may be later in the week before Ovechkin suits up for a Capitals game.

Whether they face Ovechkin or not, the Hurricanes have just one objective tonight: win a game, by any means, and pick up two points. With a five-point margin separating the Canes (35-30-10) and playoff position in the NHL's Eastern Conference, there is no room for any slippage in the final seven games of the regular season.

"There's still enough on the clock here," Canes coach Paul Maurice said Monday. "All the games that will be played going forward for most of these teams, there's something on the line. So there won't be anything easy.

"Some other teams are struggling right now, so we may catch them as well. It's not clear, cut and dried who's out yet and who's in."

The Buffalo Sabres, eighth in the East, are playing well. So, too, are the New York Rangers. But the sixth-place Montreal Canadiens, seven points ahead of the Canes, have been shut out their past three games and will face Carolina in the RBC Center on Wednesday.

In years past, a game against the Caps meant one thing: a run-and-gun affair requiring the Canes to score a bunch of goals, or else. Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and the other Caps gunslingers always looked to push the pace and shoot from all angles.

That's no longer the case, though. The Capitals have been remade and rebuilt into a team better suited for the playoffs' more conservative play. That could work against the Canes tonight in a game they need to win to try and reach the playoffs.

"They've had a team that was happy trading chances," Hurricanes forward Jussi Jokinen said Monday. "Both teams would have lots of chances. They have so many high-skill forwards, and they got lots of goals.

"This year they have changed a lot and play a more defensive-minded game. They had some problems early in the year with that, but now it has been good for them, and they are back up in the standings. That might be a better style for the playoffs."

The Caps were the top seeds in the East last season, only to be bounced from the playoffs in the first round by the Canadiens. Ovechkin has just 29 goals this season, and the Caps' 205 goals rank them 10th in the East. But they're 44-22-10 and trail the first-place Philadelphia Flyers by just two points.

"They're committed to playing a harder game defensively and look a lot more comfortable in those lower-scoring games," Maurice said.

The Caps' back end, with defensemen such as John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Jeff Schultz and John Erskine, plays a more bruising style. All-Star defenseman Mike Green, who has been sidelined with a concussion, is an offensive threat but also has adopted and adapted to the defense-first approach.

"They used to run and gun and try to beat you 7-6," Canes forward Cory Stillman said. "Maybe they learned that in the playoffs you've got to tighten up, and if they did that early in the season it would carry a long ways. You see where they are right now."

The Hurricanes, on the other hand, are in a less enviable spot right now. Carolina fell five points behind the Sabres with a 4-2 loss Saturday to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen missed Saturday's game because of food poisoning but returned to practice Monday and will play tonight. Maurice said a decision would be made after today's morning skate on which defenseman would be a healthy scratch.

The Canes' last game against the Caps, March 11 at the Verizon Center, was a close, tight-checking matchup that Washington won 2-1 despite being outshot 41-26. With two minutes left in regulation, Caps goalie Braden Holtby stopped a Stillman shot but muffed the puck trying to cover it, allowing Carolina's Jay Harrison to bang it in for an apparent goal. But the referee on the far side of the play had blown the play dead - no goal.

Did that early whistle cost the Canes a point, or two? Maybe, maybe not.

"Obviously, [it was] a referee's mistake and a tough one to take," Jokinen said. "But we made some mistakes that cost us in that game.

"We're at the point where every play now is important. One bad play or penalty could cost us the season."

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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