The pivotal week of the NHL regular season is upon them, and the Capitals know exactly what they need to do to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That alone is a victory for a team that began the season 2-8-1 and looked in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2007. But only one team in the Eastern Conference has been better since then, and Washington will clinch the Southeast Division for the fifth time in six seasons Tuesday night if they beat second-place Winnipeg at Verizon Center.
"You don't have to worry about somebody else helping you out or doing something for you," Caps forward Troy Brouwer said. "You have your own destiny, and we can lock the third spot if we get a win."
Washington (25-18-2, 52 points) leads the Jets by one point after Winnipeg beat struggling Buffalo 2-1 on Monday night. But even with that win, Winnipeg still needs to beat the Caps to keep alive its own division title hopes. A Washington victory Tuesday would give the Caps 54 points, and even if the Jets beat Montreal in their final game on Thursday at home, their best total in that case would be 53.
|Jets at Capitals|
|When » Tuesday, 7 p.m.|
|Where » Verizon Center|
|TV » CSN|
"There's still three games in the season," Caps center Mike Ribeiro said. "Obviously, tomorrow's a big game for both sides, and for us, you beat them, you're in. But you need to take that like, 'OK, it's not the end of the world, either.'?"
That's because Washington still has games left against Ottawa (Thursday) and Boston (Saturday). Both are against likely playoff teams, but both also are at Verizon Center. A loss to the Jets could make those must-wins, and that would be far from an ideal scenario. But it also would prove Ribeiro right: That while important, Tuesday's game is not do-or-die.
"I think that's why you don't want to put too much focus, too much emphasis," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "Obviously, you do that on Game 7s and stuff like that in the playoffs. But for us right now the way we've been successful is by just worrying about that game, that period."
But the bottom line is if the Caps beat the Jets, then those final two games won't matter as much. Even their seed in the Eastern Conference will be locked up. There will be an invitation to the postseason party, and that's what counts at this point.
Washington lost 4-2 to Winnipeg at home on Jan. 22. But since then the season series has been all Caps, who won three times at MTS Centre in March by a combined score of 13-1. The latter two were back-to-back contests on March 21 and 22, and Washington won 4-0 and 6-1. Starting with that successful trip to Winnipeg, the Caps have gone 13-3.
"It's a good memory for us," coach Adam Oates said. "But that was also a few weeks ago. Teams change. I don't think they're the same team as they were that weekend."