It's Super Tuesday on Ice in Washington, D.C. The candidates have already faced off in heated debates seven times this season. This last standoff will either determine a definitive winner or muddy the picture even more than it already is.
Welcome to the great race for the 2008 Southeast Division title, the Carolina Hurricanes
vs. the Washington Capitals
"It'll be a playoff game," Washington center Brooks Laich
told NHL.com of tonight's 7 p.m. ET clash between the Caps and 'Canes at the Verizon Center. "This will be our make-or-break game."
It comes down to this: With a regulation win tonight, the Hurricanes win the division and lock up the third place in the Eastern Conference and the home-ice advantage that comes along with it. The Capitals would still be three points shy of a playoff spot with only two games remaining.
But if the Capitals pull out the regulation win tonight, they will pull into a first-place tie with the Hurricanes. Each would have 90 points and two games remaining against fellow Southeast Division foes Florida and Tampa Bay.
Overtime or shootout wins on each side decide nothing, although Carolina would move within one point of clinching the division if it wins in either of the extra sessions. Washington would move within a point of the division lead and eighth place in the conference if it does the same.
"Everyone is excited to just get out there, do a job, play hard and get a win," Carolina center Eric Staal
told NHL.com. "We want to be in the playoff picture, and (tonight) in Washington is a huge opportunity for our team to get one win and be comfortable with where we sit. We're excited about the challenge."
When the calendar flipped to March, the Hurricanes knew the challenge ahead of them. They held a slim three-point lead over the Capitals in the division race, and if they didn't win the division making the playoffs at all would be a chore.
The Hurricanes had their best month of the season, going 9-2-1 to gather 19 of a possible 24 points. What was their reward? A smaller lead.
"We are still in control going into Washington and we can close them out for the season," Staal said. "This is the next challenge. It's going to be a good test for us."
The Capitals, meanwhile, went 10-4 during the month, including 5-1 on a recent road trip, gathering 20 of a possible 28 points. It was their best month of the season, too.
With that kind of success, including a pair of four-game winning streaks, the Caps figured they would do more than just keep the pressure on the Hurricanes and the other teams fighting for the final three spots of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Their reward instead was only a one point burst in the standings.
"We have been in this situation for an awful long time now," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau
told reporters Monday. "It's not like all of a sudden we're like 'Oh wow, you know we got a chance.' We have known for, heck, the longest time, especially the last two weeks when we went on the road, what we had to accomplish just to give us a shot.
"It still isn't completely in our hands," the coach continued. "If every team continues to win, and even if we win, we're not going to get there, but we firmly believe the big guy will shine on us at some point and something good will happen if we continue to play the way we're playing."
Even though the Caps still need to win and get some help, no one in Washington appears concerned. Laich even said there is a feeling of invincibility spreading throughout the team's locker room.
For evidence, just listen to how Laich talks when discussing the Capitals' power play, which has gone cold in the last five games to the tune of one for its last 24.
"We had a talk about it this morning and in the last three games and going in to the playoffs we know the power play can win you a game or lose you a game," Laich said.
Going into the playoffs? That's pretty bold words from a player whose team isn't even in playoff position entering the final week of the regular season.
No big deal, Laich claims.
"That's our expectation (to make the playoffs)," he said, adding the belief comes directly from Boudreau, who has preached the playoffs ever since taking over the last place team right around Thanksgiving.
As a result, Laich said the Capitals are not only winning, but having a blast doing it. In fact, it's been so much fun that he's been cutting his pre-game naps short just so he can get to the rink early to hang out with the rest of the boys and soak it all in.
"Honestly it's a lot of fun around here," Laich said. "The guys are having a blast and the games are so meaningful. When we score a goal or win a game everyone is so overjoyed. The guys don't look at the games as hard. They look at them as opportunities. We have turned heads around here. I think we turned Washington back into a hockey market."
Carolina could ruin the party tonight. It had a chance this past Saturday, but a stunning 2-1 loss in Tampa Bay coupled with Washington's 3-0 win over Florida kept the champagne on ice.
"It was disappointing," Staal said, "but we still like where we sit."
And tonight, the 'Canes could also add wingers Ray Whitney
(out all of March after ankle surgery) and Justin Williams
(out since December after reconstructive knee surgery) to their lineup. Both players practiced Monday, and Staal said those additions have to help, even as early as tonight when the rust could be evident.
"They were skating pretty well so hopefully (tonight) they can be out there and helping us out," Staal said. "They have the offensive instincts and talent to be a difference or score a goal that can be a difference in any game."
The only one that matters starts at 7 tonight in D.C. The candidates are ready.
Tuesday will be super for one of them.
"Since Bruce got here we had Carolina in our sights," Laich said. "They have something we want, and that's first place."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org