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'Canes return home to host Caps

by David Kalan
CAPITALS (29-24-5) at HURRICANES (22-26-11)


Last 10: Washington 3-5-2; Carolina 5-2-3.

Season Series: The Capitals have won three of four against the Hurricanes this season, but it was Carolina taking the most recent meeting, a 3-0 shutout victory on Jan. 20 at the RBC Center.

Big Story: Washington is still on the edge of the playoff chase, but the Caps have struggled lately. A win Monday could lift the Caps back into the top eight, but doing it in Carolina won't come easy. Despite their record, the Hurricanes have been playing their best hockey of the season of late.

Team Scope:

Capitals: As it stands right now, Washington would be sitting at home and scheduling tee times if the postseason started today, but a berth in the top is not far away. The Capitals are just one point behind eighth-seeded Toronto, and also have a valuable game in hand on the Maple Leafs. The Southeast Division title, too, is not out of the question. The first-place Panthers have failed to separate and build a big cushion as the race hits the stretch run.

All of that positive incentive aside, however, it's hard to deny that Washington has struggled lately, much to the detriment of its playoff hopes. The Caps lost to Carolina the last time the two played and the loss set off a bumpy stretch in which the Capitals have won just four of 13 games. In their last outing Saturday night, the Caps fell to the division rival Lightning, 2-1. For Washington to pull comfortably into the postseason discussion, it will need to snap out of the funk.

Hurricanes: At first glance, a mid-to-late-season meeting with the last-place Hurricanes is hardly a cause for concern, particularly when you've won three of four games against them already this season. This Carolina is not the Carolina Washington was dealing with in October, however. Following initial struggles after Kirk Muller took over the head coaching reins in Raleigh, the Canes have begun to surge. Their loss Saturday night to the Islanders was their first in regulation this month, following a 4-0-2 stretch to start February. As a result, Carolina has closed to within two points of 14th-place Buffalo and could be climbing out of the East cellar very soon.

Those chances get even higher as the Canes open a six-game stay at the RBC Center, where they have a 15-12-3 record this season, but there is cause for concern as starting goalie Cam Ward may be out with a lower-body injury he suffered against the Isles. If Ward can't go, the Canes' hopes will be pinned on backup Justin Peters, who is 1-3 in his four starts this season with an ugly 3.65 goals-against average.

Who's Hot: Despite the Caps' struggles, Alex Semin doesn't seem to be affected. He's put up 7 points in his last six games. ... A fire seems to have been lit under Eric Staal again. The Canes' captain has 4 goals and 4 assists in his last five games.

Injury Report: Tuomo Ruutu is expected to miss two more weeks with an upper-body injury for Carolina, while goalie Cam Ward (lower-body injury) and Chad LaRose (upper-body injury) are both considered questionable for Monday. Washington is still without Nicklas Backstrom, who has been out with a concussion since early January.

Stat Pack: The Capitals may be on the outside looking in at the playoffs right now, but there is one big sign that they may very well be in the top eight come April. Washington's 28 regulation and overtime wins are an impressive total at this point in the season -- so impressive that only two teams in the East, the New York Rangers (34) and Philadelphia (31) have more.

Puck Drop: It isn't a stretch to say Monday's game bears more importance for Washington than Carolina considering the potential playoff implications for the Caps, but for a team in the rebuilding process like the Hurricanes, playing better and getting wins against quality opponents goes a long way toward returning a team to prominence. Dealing a major blow to a division rival wouldn't hurt either.
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