April 15 vs. Boston Bruins at Capital One Arena

Time: 7:00 p.m.


Stream: MonSports.net/Stream

Radio: 106.7 The Fan, Capitals Radio 24/7

Boston Bruins (47-18-15)

Washington Capitals (38-31-11)

Eighty games deep into the NHL’s 2023-24 regular season, the Capitals are once again in control of their playoff destiny as they head into the final two games of the campaign, a set of games on back-to-back nights. The Caps host Boston on Monday night in their final home game of ’23-24, and they travel to Philadelphia for Tuesday’s regular season finale against the Flyers.

The outcome of a season that began more than six months ago will come down to what happens in a span of 27 hours, starting with Monday night’s opening face-off.

If the Caps are able to sweep this set of back-to-backs, they’ll qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Should they fall short of attaining the four points still remaining to them, there are a number of scenarios that would still result in a Washington playoff appearance, but in each of those, the Caps would be forced to rely on aid from enemies elsewhere to land a berth.

The simplest – and hardest – way is for the Caps to defeat the Bruins and the Flyers. It’s the hardest way because both the Bruins and Flyers still have something to play for, and winning games on consecutive nights in the NHL is always a tall task, no matter the opposition, and no matter the time of the season. Boston is seeking the Atlantic Division crown, and Philadelphia is – along with Pittsburgh, Detroit and Washington – among four teams vying for the second wild card berth in the Eastern Conference.

Saturday night’s thrilling 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Capital One Arena coupled with Boston’s 6-4 victory over the Penguins in Pittsburgh later in the evening restored the Caps’ playoff destiny, which had been surrendered in a 4-2 road loss to the Sabres on Thursday.

For the Caps, Saturday’s victory came with a significant cost. Defenseman Nick Jensen was stretchered off the ice late in the first period after careening into the boards awkwardly following a shove from Lightning forward Mikey Eyssimont in neutral ice. Jensen was motionless on the ice for a few minutes before being taken off and tended to, and he was able to leave the building under his own power and with his family at night’s end.

After Sunday’s final regular season practice session at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, Caps’ coach Spencer Carbery confirmed that neither Jensen nor Rasmus Sandin (upper body) would be available to the Capitals for the team’s two remaining games. Sandin (21:07) and Jensen (19:38) rank second and third, respectively, among Washington blueliners in average ice time per game. Jensen logs an average of 2:46 per night in shorthanded ice time, ranking among the top 30 of all NHL defensemen with at least 40 games played this season.

Washington is also still without defenseman Ethan Bear, currently in the NHL/NHLPA’s Player Assistance Program.

Prior to Sunday’s practice, the Caps announced the recall of veteran defenseman Dylan McIlrath from AHL Hershey. McIlrath, the Bears’ captain, has played in 73 NHL games sprinkled over parts of eight seasons with four different organizations.

“He’s been up here, played a game for us earlier this year,” says Carbery of the decision to recall McIlrath. “I think from an opponent/types of game we’re going to be playing in, he makes a lot of sense. From a leadership/experience standpoint, coming into these situations and not being overwhelmed by the moment, I think he fits the bill as well.”

McIlrath, who turns 32 next week, has also played on two Calder Cup championship squads over the course of his pro career. He is one of eight members of Hershey’s 2023 Calder Cup championship squad who are now populating the parent club’s roster. Among those eight players are a trio of defensemen who are aiming to help the Caps mitigate the absences of their blueline regulars: Vincent Iorio, Lucas Johansen and McIlrath.

“Same way that we have with other injuries, departures that we’ve had all year,” says Carbery. “It’s going to be opportunity for other players to step up, and then also not putting that on one person’s shoulders. The group – [defense] corps, forwards – doing a little bit more to help alleviate the absence of [Jensen], whether it’s a penalty kill standpoint of just a 5-on-5.”

John Carlson will certainly be relied on to shoulder a heavy ice time workload in these last two games for Washington, and we can also expect to see more of veterans Trevor van Riemsdyk and Martin Fehervary. Alex Alexeyev has put together a strong string of games, and he has eclipsed the 21-minute mark in each of the Caps’ last two games.

“He has stepped up big time,” says Carbery of Alexeyev. “He played over 20 minutes [Saturday] night. It’s been huge, with us being shorthanded back there, and now we need some guys to step up and into some big roles – Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marty’s now playing over 20 minutes.

“And that’s good, because they’ve earned and are prepared for that opportunity, but also have wanted that all season, to play in these situations. And especially for Al, for someone who was on the outside looking in for so long, to be able to step up in these moments and play these type of minutes – and play at a high level and be productive with those minutes – has been really impressive to watch. So we should be in a good spot. And now we’ve just got to finish the job.”

Iorio, 21, has played in each of the Caps’ last three games and has skated in four NHL games this season, and seven over the course of his career. The 26-year-old Johansen has logged nine NHL games over parts of three seasons, including half a dozen games earlier this season. Johansen was in the Washington lineup for the first four games of a five-game Caps winning streak in November, the team’s longest winning spree of the season. Mcllrath was the 10th player chosen overall in the 2010 NHL Draft, and he is now more than a decade removed from his NHL debut with the Rangers in December of 2013.

Two of the three are likely to be in the Caps’ lineup these next two nights.

“There’s some plays that I want to take back,” says Iorio, a second-year pro, of his current NHL stint. “I’m a big visual learner, and I watch my clips all the time. It’s frustrating when you see something on the overhead view where you could have made a play, and you didn’t make the play. But for me, it’s just to stick to my game and keep playing simple.”

Johansen was the Caps’ first-round choice (28th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft, and he is the lone lefty of the three defenders currently up from Hershey. Johansen spent the first half of this season on the Washington roster.

“It’s a long season, and there’s a lot of important games,” says Johansen. “The circumstances in Hershey are unique; we’re trying to set a [League] record [for most wins] there, so those games are important in their own way. And then you come up here, and obviously the boys are fighting for their playoff lives, and it’s just a really exciting time. But at the same time, you can’t treat games differently. It’s got to be the same approach every time. And if I’m in the lineup, I’m going to treat it like I would any other game.”

McIlrath is a veteran of 618 regular season games in the AHL and 71 Calder Cup playoff games at that level. He’s a hard-nosed, right-handed defender who is an imposing figure at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds.

“I’ve definitely grown a lot as a player,” says McIlrath of his evolution over a decade as a pro. “I’m a lot more mature player. It’s easy to say that you don’t get nervous as you get older, but that’s not true. It’s just as exciting and I’m anxious to get in the lineup again, but I definitely have a lot more experience to lean on than I did when I was a rookie, playing in some big, important games, playing a lot of minutes down in Hershey. I’ve come a long way.”

As Hershey’s captain and a guy who’s seen a lot over the course of his career, McIlrath knows it will take a committee to fill the void left by the absences on the Washington blueline.

“No one is going to replace Nick Jensen and what he brings, especially us young guys, us call-ups,” says McIlrath. “We collectively just have to play a simple, hard game and stick to the structure. For myself, all I can control is sticking to the system, trying to do my job as best as I can, and not try to do too much. So that’s what I’m going to do.”