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Caps relish challenge of fighting for division title

Monday, 02.06.2012 / 5:14 PM / NHL Insider

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Caps relish challenge of fighting for division title
By this point in the season Washington typically finds itself comfortably in the playoffs and cruising in the Southeast Division, but this time around it's shaping up as a battle to the finish.
ARLINGTON, VA. -- The Florida Panthers came to Verizon Center on April 5, 2008, and ended up with a first-hand account of the beginning of a Southeast Division dynasty.

Washington won that night, 3-1, and it was the final step in frenetic dash to a division title. The atmosphere in the building was electric and the ovation as the final seconds counted down reached decibel levels normally reserved for playoff games in most NHL arenas.

The Capitals will welcome the Panthers to Washington on Tuesday night, and they will be there trying to take another step toward ending that same dynasty. Washington has won each of the past four Southeast Division titles -- the previous three with relative ease.

"In my time since I've been here there haven't been that many," veteran forward Mike Knuble said of playing critical games in February. "At this time of year we've kind of been cruising and just waiting and not really involved too much in things."

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That is going to change this season. The Capitals have scuffled since a 7-0-0 start and enter their Tuesday matchup one point behind the Panthers and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference.

Three seasons ago Washington led Carolina by 13 points on Feb. 7, and eventually ended up with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Two seasons ago the Capitals had a 27-point lead on Feb. 7 en route to the No. 1 seed in the East and the Presidents' Trophy.

Last season the Capitals were pushed by the Tampa Bay Lightning and didn't take control of the division for good until early March, but they were also comfortably in a playoff position throughout February. They also didn't have any home games against the Lightning after Jan. 4.

Take all of that into consideration, and this contest Tuesday night is probably the most important at Verizon Center since that April evening in 2008.

"Now this is the fun part -- 30 games to go and we're playing meaningful hockey games and every night matters and we're watching other teams," Knuble said. "At the same time, it is early enough and we're in the thick of it enough that we can control it. We don't need help from anybody, and that's probably the biggest advantage that we have is that it is still in our hands. You get down to the last two or three weeks and things start to be out of your hands if you don't put in the work now."

Added Troy Brouwer: "Thirty games left and we're in a tight race. With our win one, lose one, win two, lose two type of hockey this year, we're in a tough situation. This week is going to be very, very crucial to see where we are at later in the season. It is two big games against two teams that are playing well right now."

Brouwer mentioned two big games because the Winnipeg Jets, currently in third place in the Southeast and four points behind the Capitals, are the next team to come to town on Thursday.

The Capitals are banged up -- versatile center Brooks Laich is the latest to join the wounded with a left knee injury. His status was still to be determined as of Monday afternoon, but he did not practice with the team.

Of the 38 players who played in that game in Apr. 2008, only nine remain on the same rosters. Florida has more Capitals from that night (Tomas Fleischmann and Matt Bradley) than it does Panthers (Stephen Weiss). Washington has eight players still around, but it is possible that three of them (Laich, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom) will miss the game because of injury and one of Jeff Schultz or John Erskine will probably be a healthy scratch.

"I think right now me and [Alexander Semin], [Marcus Johansson], Brouwer and [Jason Chimera] -- now we have to play like we didn't play this year yet. Again, right it is now tough and it is going to be tough, but I like when it is tough. You have to show your character and you have to show your leadership. … In this situation, you can't do nothing. We're not going to cry or wait for help. It is all about us. We have to be together and play like a team."
Quote of the Day

When things aren't going well for us in this city [Toronto], I think there is a lot of overanalyzing going on. You've got the most passionate fans in the world here and a lot of (media) coverage, so you know there's going to be a lot of people giving their two cents worth on us.

— Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk after a win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday
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