Capitals on the verge, eye home-ice advantage

Washington eager to gain tactical edge in playoffs before local fans

March 28, 2010|By Tarik El-Bashir | The Washington Post

ARLINGTON, VA. — — The night before training camp opened last September, coach Bruce Boudreau stood before a ballroom filled with roster players and prospects. The Washington Capitals' goals for the 2009-10 season, he told them, are to win the Southeast Division, the Eastern Conference, the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

"So far," Boudreau said Saturday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, "we've got one of them and we're on the verge of two."

Indeed, if the Capitals gain a single point today against the Calgary Flames, they will clinch the first regular-season conference title in the franchise's 35-year history.

Winning the conference, though, carries more significance than simply achieving the second of Boudreau's four preseason goals.

The No. 1 seed in each conference also is guaranteed home ice throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs, which, in theory, gives the players on the home team a comfort-level advantage and the coaches a tactical edge.

"It's huge," defenseman Tom Poti said. "Having that extra game in your home arena, and you get to sleep in your own bed more. We love our home cooking and we love to play at home in front of our crowd. We get amped up a little more to play in front of them."

If the Capitals clinch, games 1, 2, 5 and 7 would be at Verizon Center, where they're a league-leading 27-4-4, have outscored opponents 139-90 and are backed by one of the league's loudest crowds. Interestingly, their league-leading power play is even more dangerous there (26.4 percent vs. 25.5 on the road), while their struggling penalty kill is markedly better on home ice (84.8 percent vs. 74.4 on the road).

Star forward Alex Ovechkin said playing in front of the boisterous crowds on F Street - the past 50 games have been sellouts - serves as a major source of motivation for him and his teammates.

"The fans [are] unbelievable right now," he said. "It's crazy. If we are losing the game, the fans keep pushing us because they want free wings. It's pretty sick when everyone screams, 'Unleash the fury.' My first year, there was probably three people in the stands. Second year, five people. Right now it's 20,000 people."

Capacity crowds aside, Boudreau and his players also noted the importance of hosting Game 7 - even if that advantage hasn't been reflected in the final score the past two seasons.

"You hope you don't have to win it in Game 7," Boudreau said. "But that's where the advantage comes in."

David Steckel added: "It's a big deal because, historically, the odds are in your favor in Game 7 if you have home ice."

Nicklas Backstrom agreed that playing a series-deciding game at home "can make a big difference." But the soft-spoken Swede also conceded that it might have worked against an inexperienced Capitals team when the season was on the line against the Pittsburgh Penguins. "We weren't ready," he said. "Maybe we thought it was done because we had home advantage, so we took it easier."

From a tactical standpoint, home ice provides one plus that can't be disputed: Boudreau has the option to match his best defensive pair and top checking line against the opponent's best forwards.

"We get the last change, which allows us to do some maneuvering, if we care to do so," Boudreau said. "At least we force them to make moves."

Notes: Brooks Laich skated lightly Saturday morning wearing a full cage on his helmet to protect his face injury. But the wing is not expected to play before Tuesday. "It's going to take time [because] his face is swollen and sore," Boudreau said. "He's hoping to practice with the guys on Monday." ... Brendan Morrison left practice early with what Boudreau called a "lower body tweak." The veteran center will be a game-time decision. ... The Capitals can tie the franchise record for wins (50) against the Flames.

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