If this were mid-December, late January, or even early February, the Washington Capitals 3-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night would be considered a moral victory in defeat, but this is mid-March, and Washington needs points badly.

Bubble team is a term used commonly in month of March and the Capitals (36-29-6) certainly fit the description.  The Caps are on a late season surge that if there were a tournament committee, they would consider when deciding the Caps at large bid, but this is hockey, and “There ain’t no stinking committees” in the NHL, you must fight your way into the postseason in this league.

The Capitals, 6-3-1 in their last 10 games and are looking for their second-straight win in Chicago. They currently sit five points behind Florida for first place in the Southeast Division and hold a two-point lead over Winnipeg for the eighth and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Washington currently owns the eighth and final spot with 78 points in the Eastern Conference.

POINTS BADLY NEEDED:

The Capitals needed those two points on Friday night. They needed them as badly as Duke and Missouri need another half of basketball. Washington also needs two more tonight, tomorrow night, and just everybody time they step onto the ice in each of their final 11 contests. It appears that if the Capitals are going to play in the playoffs, which begin in less than 28 days, then they will do so from the final playoff position in the East.

 Winning their fifth straight Southeast title is starting to look less likely as the Florida Panthers have won four in a row, and now leads Washington by five points.  This isn’t going to be easy, and Friday’s loss hurts the Caps badly when you consider that starting tonight, they play three of the top nine teams in the NHL on the road. Despite the Caps recent success away from Verizon Center, where they have won three of their last four games, Washington is still just 13-19-3 away from the District this season.

IT WON’T GET ANY EASIER:

The Chicago Blackhawks, and Detroit Red Wings, the Caps next two opponents, have the second and third best home records in the league. The Wings set an NHL record by winning 23 straight games at home back in mid-February, and the Hawks own a 24-7-5 mark at United Center (.697 point percentage).

Washington has never had very much success in the Windy City with a 13-23-6-0 franchise record but during the past few seasons the Capitals have won each of the last three matchups with Chicago dating back to March 19, 2008. Washington has outscored Chicago 12-8 during that span with each of the last two contests being decided in overtime.

The atmosphere in Winnipeg on Friday night was as frenzied as most NHL venues during the playoffs, but was just a warm-up for what the Caps will see over the course of their next three games.  While Washington’s play was encouraging, and they did a lot of good things, it’s too late for” atta” boy performances.  

Not being able to beat the Jets, or hold on long enough to gain one point doesn’t give much hope to Caps fans as they prepare to face three teams that have played in two of the last three Stanley Cup Finals. If the Capitals play as they did on Friday in every period of the next three games, it is possible to get three or even four of the six points available. But that’s not expected from a team that has failed play consistently good hockey since they began the season a franchise best 7-0.

Washington is 6-3-1 over their past 10 games with a quality win in Boston, but the Caps have struggled against teams currently in the playoff hunt. Dating back to Jan, 11, only five of the Caps 15-wins have come against current playoff teams. Of their 16 losses during that same stretch, Washington dropped seven to current playoff teams, and lost nine times to teams not currently in a playoff spot. The Hawks Wings and Flyers are a combined 11more wins than Washington. This time last season, with virtually the same roster plus Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps had just won nine in a row to push their win total to 41, five more than they currently own. How would 10 additional points look right now?

BACKSTROM APPEARANCE:

Backstrom’s absence has hurt Washington. The Caps were 21-15-2 with him and just 15-14-4 without the Swede. He was the team’s leading scorer until mid-February, and is still fourth on the team in points. He remains second behind Dennis Wideman in assists, and is tied for sixth on the team in goals with 13. Many are excited that Backstrom has skated for five straight days now – including Saturday. Mike Vogel of the Capitals web site reports that No.19 is trying to get healthy and return to the Washington lineup for the stretch drive and/or the playoffs. 

Come on now, are you serious. The report doesn’t indicate he’s been cleared for contact, and if you followed the Sidney Crosby drama, than you know the likelihood of Backstrom playing this season is very small. Damn near an improbability, but then again we did just watch to No.15 seeds beat two No.2 seeds on the same day. So my point is, anything can happen in sports.

HOLTBY TO GET A START THIS WEEK?

The Caps have recalled goaltender Braden Holtby from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League (AHL), vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. Holtby, 22, owns a 20-15-2 record with a 2.61 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage in 40 games with Hershey this season.

Last season he posted a 10-2-2 record with a 1.79 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage in 14 games with the Capitals. He became the first Caps rookie goaltender to be named NHL Player of the Week since Jim Carey accomplished the feat during the 1994-95 season. The 6’2,” 203-pound Holtby won his last five starts with Washington and recorded the only assist for a Caps goaltender last season.

Last March, Holtby held serve for his team and then some. On national TV vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning, he came on to replace a dazed Michael Neuvirth to start the second period after Neuvy was struck in the head with a hard shot. Holtby came on to make spectacular save after spectacular save and made 21 stops shutting out the Bolts in the final two periods. He also stopped all three shots in the shootout to preserve a big 2-1 Caps win allowing Washington to continue their winning streak. Holtby remained in net for the final four games of the Caps nine game mid-March winning streak, and won once more before heading back to Hershey for 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Holtby was called up because Tomas Vokoun appeared to suffer an injury following a great second period save in which he did a full split to make the stop. Vokoun got up slowly but finished the game. It’s likely the groin has stiffened since then.

Is it possible that head coach Dale Hunter would give Holtby a chance to spark the Caps again, especially with back-to-back games against two of the best teams in the NHL? Nahhhh, Hunter struggles with goaltending decisions and Neuvirth was first off during the morning skate according to the Dailey Faceoff.

BIG 3 MUST HIT THE SCORE SHEET:

While it is unlikely that Hunter will take such a chance, Washington will need more production from the team’s leaders. If ever there was a time for the two Alex’s and Mike Green to become big time players making big time plays, it’s now. However, when you consider the sum of the entire season, not expected.

Ovechkin has scored two overtime game-winners in the last couple weeks, and he had two goals against the Isles on Tuesday, but he hasn’t appeared on the score sheet in 10 of 20 games since the NHL’s All-Star break. That is bad news when you consider that Washington is 29-6-3 in games in which Ovechkin has recorded at least a point this season. The Great 8 Alex Ovechkin has tallied four points (three goals, one assist) in five career games against Chicago.

Alexander Semin has 30 points in 31 games, but he has cooled significantly since. He has a goal and three points in his last nine games, and he has been held without a point in seven of those nine games. Defenseman Mike Green returned from a three-game NHL suspension on Friday night in Winnipeg, took six shots in the game, had four blocked and missed the net on the other two. Green is now without a point in 14 straight games, and hasn’t seen his name and a point side-by-side since a 7-0 blowout win over the Red Wings at home in October.

NOTES FOR TONIGHT’S GAME:

Washington trails 36-38-11-1, entering the 87th meeting. This is the only meeting of the season between these two clubs as the Caps earned a 4-3 overtime win at home on March 13, 2011. The Capitals are playing in their 12th back-to-back set this season. Oddly enough they are 7-4-1 in the first game, and 4-7-1 in the second. The Caps won both games of a back-to-back last weekend in Boston and then at home vs. Toronto, but that's a far cry from two on the road in Chicago and Detroit.

Troy Brouwer returns to Chicago to face his former team for the first time since a trade last summer. Brouwer was originally drafted by Chicago in the seventh round (214th overall) of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Brouwer recorded 103 points (49 goals, 54 assists) in 238 games with Chicago from 2006-2011. Brouwer won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010 and set career highs in goals (22) and points (40) that season.

Brooks Laich has recorded five points (three goals, two assists) in six career games against the Blackhawks.

Capitals head coach Dale Hunter coached current Capitals Dennis Wideman and John Carlson during their time with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Current Chicago Blackhawks Dave Bolland (2002-2006) and Patrick Kane (2006-07) both played under Hunter while with London. Bolland and Wideman were teammates with the Knights from 2002-2004 and Bolland won a Memorial Cup Championship under Hunter in 2005.

Marian Hossa leads all Blackhawks with 23 goals, 28 assists and 51 points in a team-high 46 career games against the Capitals. Goalie Corey Crawford stopped 38 of 42 shots last season against the Capitals in his only career appearance against Washington for a 3.81 GAA.  Ray Emery is 4-8-0 with a 3.51 GAA in 12 career appearances against Washington. The Blackhawks have compiled a 39-34-13 record in 86 all-time meetings with the Capitals, which includes a 23-12-7 mark in Chicago.

Brent Seabrook collected his 22nd helper on Friday to extend his point streak to a season-long three games (G, 2A). The Tsawassen, British Columbia, native's 28 points (6G, 22A) in 68 games rank third among blueliners. Seabrook shared the team lead Friday, registering three hits against the Stars. He now leads the team with 178 hits during the 2011-12 campaign.

The 26-year-old led all defensemen with four shots on goal against Dallas. Seabrook now ranks seventh among all Blackhawks skaters with 126 shots on goal this year. He registered a game-best +3 plus/minus rating on Friday night, equaling his season high.

Regardless of how tough the next three games are for the Capitals, they need points. Failure to come away with any will probably end their season. However, if they can somehow find a way to earn four of six points, they could use that momentum to build towards something special this spring.

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