THE PLAYOFF PICTURE:

With just three games remaining in the 2012 season, the Washington Capitals are once again firmly in control of their own destiny. Washington swept the season series with the Montreal Canadiens with their second straight 3-2 shootout win over an Eastern Conference Northeast Division foe. Coupled with a Sabres loss in Toronto, the Caps now have a two-point lead over Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

In a game that saw the return of Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, Washington didn’t exactly resemble the squad from two seasons ago when they won the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season team, but looking back on the 2011-12 campaign, it’s tough to find a time when Washington played up to expectations with any consistency.

 However, the two points the Caps earned for the win could loom extremely large when you consider that it was really a four-point game because Washington owns the tiebreak over the Sabres with more wins in regulation this season.

The Sabres, who are slumping with two consecutive losses, also have just three games remaining. Buffalo will host the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, and then take to the road to play the Bruins and Flyers to close out their season.

Washington does not exactly have a cakewalk to the playoffs. They will travel to play the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night, return home to host the Florida Panthers on Thursday, and then finish the regular season on Saturday in New York against the Rangers. The Blue Shirts are close to locking down the No.1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference, and were given a lot of help on Sunday by an unlikely foe, the Philadelphia Flyers.

Philly defeated the Penguins 6-4 in a very entertaining and physical affair. The Flyers trail now trail the No.4 seed Penguins by just one point for home ice advantage in what is a likely Flyers-Penguins Keystone state first round match-up. Pittsburgh has just three games left and trail the Rangers by five points so Saturday’s match-up with the Rangers is a likely (cross your fingers please) first round preview and re-match of the last year’s first round match-up between the Capitals and Rangers.

Goaltender Michael Neuvirth was stellar and the Caps disposed of Blue Shirts in just five games before being swept by the Lightning in the second round during last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

TRADING ONE FOR THE OTHER:

With the playoffs around the corner, the Capitals are getting better secondary scoring from their deeper lines this year than did last year at this time, but have lost quite a few markers from guys they were counting on this season to come up big.

If the Caps are going to match last year’s output of 224 goals for the season, they will need to average four goals per game over their last three contests. The Capitals jumped to a 2-0 lead on Saturday night on goals from Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle. Three Caps players, Jason Chimera (19), Mathieu Perreault (15), and Marcus Johansson have all set career highs in goal scoring. Chimera game-winning goal on Sunday against the Minnesota Wild tied him with Troy Brouwer for first on the team in game-winning goals (5). Chimera’s two shorthanded goals this season lead the team as he also has a career high in points with 38 this season.

Johansson, who recorded a goal and an assist on Thursday in Boston, now ranks fourth on the team in points (44) and has tallied three points (one goal, two assists) in his last four games.

Unfortunately, Joel Ward (6), Jeff Halpern (4), and Mike Knuble are sitting on career lows in goals through 79 games. Alexander Semin (19) is sitting on the second lowest goal scoring totals of his career, and injuries have taken a serious toll on the Caps as well. Through Saturday’s games, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom have combined to score just 16 goals in 68 games. Green has not scored a goal since he scored two back on Oct 22 during the Caps 7-1 win vs. Detroit.

How good is Washington when Green, Backstrom, and both Alex’s are in the lineup together? Saturday’s win pushed the Caps to 10-0 when the “Core Four” play in the same game this season. Backstrom did well in his return and will need time to get his legs back, but with the playoffs a likely 10-11 days away, his return could be just in the “Nick” of time. Sorry, had to do it.

According to the Hockey-Reference web site, Backstrom skated 21 shifts and logged almost 20-minutes of ice time. He had two shots and was a minus one on the evening. Washington will bring him along as they did Mike Green when he returned from his injury to help with his conditioning. In case you were wondering, Green skated 24-minutes and 24-seconds on Saturday night, which was the most amount of ice time for any Caps player. His 30 shifts were two shy of Dennis Wideman’s team high 32 on the night.

SHOOTOUT WIZARD:

Don Cherry, the former coach of the Boston Bruins for five seasons, and now current controversial co-host of Hockey Night in Canada praised Caps forward Matt Hendricks on Saturday night for his amazing shootout success, and tough play in the clutch. Hendricks, who is not exactly known for his skill with the puck, has demonstrated the ability to pull off some impressive shootout moves over his career, and even leads the team in shootout goals this season. 

The Capitals can almost assuredly thank Hendricks and his hard fake and sharp move from right to left if they make the playoffs. The 30-year-old Blaine, Minnesota native is now a very-very impressive 8-for-12 in his career in the skills competition the NHL calls the overtime shootout. That is 66.66 percent for you math geeks at home.

Hendricks has beaten some pretty damn good goalies with his shot, and on Saturday made last year’s Vezina winner and Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas look pretty foolish. Thomas fell down following Hendricks initial fake and was not happy after Hendricks converted the easy flip in. “I bit on his fake shot and heel picked,” Thomas said. “It was ugly.”

SCORING FIRST MEANS NOTHING IF YOU CANNOT HOLD A LEAD:

The Caps have scored first in six of their last seven games, but they have blown early leads in two straight and three of their last five games. Last Friday at Verizon Center, the Caps surrendered a 3-0 lead to the Winnipeg Jets before losing 4-3 in overtime, and on Thursday in Boston, the Caps were up 2-0 in the third period only to see the Bruins come back to tie the game with two goals of their own in the final four minutes of regulation.

As they did on Saturday night, the Caps managed to get the two points by winning 3-2 in the shootout. And just in case I have not said so, thanks again Matt Hendricks. The Capitals are now 27-6-6 when scoring first this season, and are 13-25-2 when allowing the game’s first tally.

Washington is tied with the New York Islanders as almost sure things to win when leading after the first period. The Caps and Isles are the only two teams that have lost just once all season when leading after one period of play. The Caps are 21-1-4, which is an .865-point percentage.

Washington is one of nine teams in the NHL this season that does not officially have a loss when leading after the middle stanza. The Capitals are were one of two teams in the NHL not to even have an overtime loss until last Friday’s collapse at home vs. the Jets. Washington is 23-0-1 this season when leading after two periods.  The Bruins are the NHL’s only true undefeated team leading after two periods this season with an impressive 31-0-0 mark.

NEUVY AND HOLTBY, THE FUTURE IS HERE:

The Tomas Vokoun idea was a good one while it lasted, but it appears the elder Czechoslovakian born goaltender on the Caps roster made his final appearance in a Caps uniform on Saturday. According to multiple published reports, Vokoun will be out for the remainder of the season after he re-aggravated a groin injury.

Chuck Gormley of Comcast Sports Net D.C reported that the injury Vokoun suffered on Saturday is worse than the one that sidelined him six straight games and likely will keep him out of the  lineup for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs.

He reinjured his groin in the first period of the Capitals’ win in Boston when an opposing forward kicked out his skate while Vokoun was prone in his crease. The play occurred before Jason Chimera’s five-minute charging major with 6 minutes remaining and Vokoun did not want to remove himself from the game and force backup Michal Neuvirth into coming in cold on a five-minute penalty kill.

However, after making a routine save late with 1:35 left in the period and 35 seconds remaining on the penalty to Chimera, Vokoun pulled himself from the game and did not return.  Vokoun did not exactly have the type of season the Capitals, and especially Caps General Manager George McPhee had hoped.  In 48 games with the Capitals Vokoun went 25-17-2 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage.

With Vokoun out of the picture, the Capitals will turn back to the younger Czech goalie on the roster, 24-year-old Michael Neuvirth, who stopped 39 of the 41 Montreal shots he faced on Saturday and both shootout attempts in Saturday night’s 3-2 win over the Habs.

Neuvy is 4-1-1 in his last six games with one shutout. He has a .930 save percentage during his four victories.  However, I smell a chance for Braden Holtby to finally make a name for himself in the NHL. With the playoffs slated to begin in less than two weeks, it is possible that Neuvirth could falter in either the first or the second game at MSG in New York. If that happens, you can bet Dale Hunter will not hesitate to turn to Holtby in hopes of gaining a split and preventing an 0-2 deficit. Hunter went with Braden over Neuvy in big games in Detroit, and Minnesota recently. Holtby did suffer a setback at home last Tuesday vs. the Sabres when he allowed three goals on just 18 Sabres shots, but that performance will not deter Hunter from using Holtby in the playoffs.

During his most recent stint in the NHL Holtby is 2-1-1, but both young net minders are ready and relish the opportunity. “I feel I grew up a little bit from last year and I feel I can do the job,” Neuvirth said Friday. “Obviously, it’s tough, but I still believe in this team and we’re going to take one game at a time and do our best and we’ll see what happens.”

Holtby is also ready, and was in the press box and summoned to the bench on Friday after Vokoun went down with the injury. “Every player’s goal is to be part of a team trying to win a Stanley Cup,” Holtby said. “There’s a human aspect to it and we want to make sure he doesn’t feel he let the team down with his injury. It’s our job to pick up a teammate and make sure we carry ourselves into the playoffs.”

Holtby’s attitude and this situation could set itself up for one of those “Making History” commercials the NHL uses to promote the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Only four rookies have ever won the Stanley Cup as a starter in the NHL.

The last to do it was Antti Niemi of the Blackhawks two seasons ago. Prior to Niemi, Montreal's Ken Dryden did in 1971 and 15 years later was joined by another Habs goalie, Patrick Roy.

Roy beat the Calgary Flames in the last all Canadien Stanley Cup Finals way back in 1986. The third to accomplish the feat and in a situation eerily similar to the one Holtby may experience was Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Ward began the 2006 playoffs as the backup to Martin Gerber. However, when the flu-ridden Gerber allowed nine goals in two losses to start the playoffs, the Canes turned to Ward. Carolina then rolled to the Stanley Cup. Ward finished the playoffs with a 2.14 goals-against average, including two shutouts, and won the Conn Smythe.

SPECIAL TEAMS NEED TO BE AS SPECIAL:

The Capitals are 21-8-1 this season when they score a power-play goal. Washington owns a 15-2-0 record when scoring a power-play goal and not allowing a goal with the man advantage. The Caps have killed off 19 of their opponents’ last 20 power plays but have struggled on their own. They went 0-for- 5 against the Canadiens and have just one power-play goal in their last six games (1 for 17).

MONDAYS’ MATCH-UP IN BRIEF:

Last year’s playoff nemesis, the Tampa Bay Lightning may not be heading back to the playoffs this season, but they can certainly do some damage to the Capitals chances of doing so with a win on Monday night. The Bolts enter Monday night’s contest 5-5-0 in their last 10, but have won four of their last six and possess the game’s most prolific goal scorer in Steven Stamkos.

Stamkos has 56 goals this season and is looking to become the first player since Alex Ovechkin in 2008 to score 60 or more goals in a season. 60 goals is rarified air in the NHL. Stamkos can become just the 19th player ever -- and only the second since 1996 -- to reach the 60-goal plateau.

He needs four in his last four games, but with six in his last five contests, it is certainly possible. The Great 8 tallied 65 during the 07-08 campaign and helped his team win a division title and return to the postseason for the first time in five years.

Stamkos has 11-goals and 6-assists in 23 career regular season games vs. Washington, and is not the only member of the Lightning that is hot. Ryan Malone has scored five goals in his last two games for Tampa. Speaking of Ovechkin and aside from Matt Hendricks shootout heroics of late, Ovie has been dominant as well.  Ovechkin has 12 points (9G, 3A) in his last 10 games.

The Lightning has won just twice vs. Washington this season, but both wins have come since Jan 31 and Stamkos has scored the game winner in each contest. The Caps won the first two meetings of the season against Tampa as well as a 3-2 overtime affair back on March 8 at Verizon center.

Washington was just four minutes away from a 1-3-1 homestand when Marcus Johansson scored his 13th goal of the season to even the score at 2-2 at 16:02 of the third. Alex Ovechkin scored his second overtime goal of the homestand and 12th of his career to win it for his team. The victory salvaged five-points from a possible 10 that were available for the five game home stint. The Caps are 3-1-1 heading into the sixth and final contest this season between the two teams.

Washington head coach Dale Hunter will look to Michael Neuvirth once again, who has now won back-to-back starts for just the second time this season. However, Neuvy has not faced the Lightning since compiling 3.74 goals-against average while starting each game of the playoff series last year.