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Caps Game Night – 7 p.m. vs Ottawa

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

Caps (26-18-2, 54 points) vs. Ottawa (23-16-6, 52 points)

Game » 47

When » Thursday, April 25

Where » Verizon Center

TV » Comcast SportsNet HD

Radio » WJFK-FM 106.7; WFED-AM 1500

Capitals coach Adam Oates said on Wednesday that he didn’t want to change much heading into this upcoming games against Ottawa and Boston (Saturday). That wasn’t completely true. It just makes too much sense to start Michal Neuvirth tonight in goal against the Senators in place of Braden Holtby. That limits the time Holtby sits between the final regular-season game against the Bruins and the Stanley Cup playoff opener – most likely on Tuesday.

Neuvirth starts for just the 13th time this season. It’s a chance to get him a game against a team desperately fighting for a playoff spot and to be ready if Holtby falters or is injured next week.

“Anything can happen right? And you have to prepare for that,” Oates said. “We finally put ourselves in a position where we can. I expect us to have a great game and [Neuvirth] to have a great game.”

The rest of Washington’s lineup returns intact. Injured forward Joel Ward was on the ice with his teammates at the morning skate on Thursday. But he is not ready yet to return from the left knee contusion sustained while blocking a shot on April 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“It was good to just get on the ice a little bit and put my gear on,” Ward said. “It was just good to be out there again. But it was definitely a positive day, for sure. It’s been a while now since I got a chance to put on the gear and actually somewhat participate in practice.”

But a return on Saturday against the Bruins remains questionable. Ward has eight goals and 12 assists this season and the team would love to get him back. But there’s no reason to push it, either – even if conditioning is an issue when Ward is finally healthy enough to return. Oates says Ward needs “a couple of good practices at full pace” before he’ll insert him into the lineup again.

“It’s been day-to-day, I’d say more like hour-to-hour,” Ward said about his wait to heal. “I’ve just been getting better and better and just before I go to bed I try to say a prayer and hopefully I get a miracle wake-up call.”

The Caps have lost twice to the Senators this season. So while there is literally nothing at stake in this one for Washington – it will be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and can’t move up or down over the final two games – Oates doesn’t want his team to lose its edge. The Caps are 24-10-1 since Feb. 9 and 16-4-1 since March 14. But that 3-1 loss to Ottawa last Thursday bothered players and coaches alike. It was one of the few times over the last two months they legitimately didn’t play well.

“I just don’t think we showed them who we are as a team,” Oates said. “We’ve played a certain type of hockey lately that’s been very productive to us, I want to make sure we have that type of game tonight to let them know this is the way we play just in case. We do that because we have success that way.”

As if Ottawa needed more motivation for this one: Star defenseman Erik Karlsson, last year’s Norris Trophy winner as the league’s best blueliner, returns from a sliced Achilles’ tendon. When that injury first happened on Feb. 13 against Pittsburgh it appeared Karlsson’s season was over.

Only after realizing the tear wasn’t complete did Ottawa hold out hope it would get Karlsson back eventually – if it could hold on in the chase for a Stanley Cup playoff spot. Much to everyone’s surprise, both of those things have happened. The Senators clinch a playoff berth with a victory tonight.

“It’s the first game back for [Karlsson] in a long time so I don’t think you’ll know exactly what you’ll get from him,” Oates said. “It won’t be the real guy yet, but obviously we’re very conscious of him.”

Ottawa defenseman Marc Methot will pair with Karlsson tonight.

“It’s a refreshing sight to see,” Methot told reporters at the Senators’ morning skate at Verizon Center. “You could tell it brings a lot of energy out of all the guys. It’s new life into our dressing room. Even with [forward Daniel Alfredsson], you could tell that he’s got a little hop in his step today, too. He’s got his Swedish buddy back.”

Karlsson, 22, had 19 goals and 59 assists last season and was off to another strong start. Through 14 games he had six goals and four assists, including a helper in a 3-2 comeback win over the Caps on Jan. 30 in Ottawa. His average ice time per game was 27:04. Among NHL defensemen, only Minnesota’s Ryan Suter (27:13) is higher. Few defensemen can impact the game at the offensive end of the rink better.

“I’ve played with and against him since I was 16 and he’s always had that,” Caps forward Marcus Johansson, a fellow Swede, said of Karlsson. “He’s the same player now as he was then. He just goes out and does his thing and he’s unbelievably good at what he does.”

Tonight’s lineup again:

Johansson-Backstrom-Ovechkin

Erat-Ribeiro-Brouwer

Chimera-Perreault-Fehr

Volpatti-Hendricks-Beagle

Alzner-Green

Erskine-Carlson

Hillen-Oleksy

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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