Thursday, January 14, 2010

Caps Open Homestand vs. Toronto

After playing just 20 of their first 46 games at Verizon Center, Washington gets a chance to get comfortable at home in the next few weeks, playing seven of their next nine at home, kicking off with a three-game homestand that begins Friday when the Leafs come to town to close out the season series.

After Washington played a strong 40 minutes against Toronto in the home opener, the Leafs have beaten the Capitals twice at Air Canada Centre, meaning the Caps will need a win Friday to salvage the four-game set.

The Maple Leafs have been a strange team this season, at time, among the NHL's worst, while certainly talented enough to contend for a playoff spot, Toronto is just six points ahead of last-place Carolina after Vesa Toskala shut out Philadelphia 4-0 Thursday night to snap Toronto's four-game losing skid.

Despite the win over the Flyers, Toronto has been back to playing poorly as of late, losing six of nine, and now will have to deal with the hassle of traveling and passing through customs that the Caps had to deal with on both their previous trips to T.O. this season.

Washington certainly will look to tighten up after a strange two-game swing through Florida which saw the team get outscored 6-1 in the first periods and needing to rally twice from a three-goal deficit against teams fighting for their playoff lives.

Toronto's hopes of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since the lockout certainly are on life support, as they now stand eight points out of the final playoff spot in the East, with five teams to jump over in order to move into a postseason position.

Add to that the team's decision to trade their first overall pick in 2010 to Boston for Phil Kessel, and the second-guessing over dealing away a potential lottery pick for the former Bruins star certainly will take place over the summer should the team continue to struggle.

In the middle of the controversy is former Capitals coach Ron Wilson, whose job security has come into question with his team sinking towards the bottom of the standings and closer to last overall than eighth in the East. Toronto GM Brian Burke told reporters Thursday that Wilson wasn't going anywhere, but, of course, the natives are getting restless as the team has never missed the playoffs five years in a row in the team's long history.

In fact, only four NHL teams haven't qualified for the postseason since the lockout, with only Florida, Los Angeles and Phoenix joining Toronto for the unwanted distinction - and of those four, the Leafs are the only squad currently not within four points of a playoff spot heading into Thursday's action.

For Washington, though, the team certainly needs to up its performance against Toronto, having played a pair of lackluster games (and a sub-par third period back on Oct. 3 when they nearly blew a large lead) against Toronto. Following allowing six goals to the Caps in the first two periods of Washington's home opener, Toronto has held the Caps to just four goals in seven periods, slowing down the play and limiting Washington's chances.

The Capitals need to shake their recent first-period doldrums and play with the lead, as falling behind Toronto would certainly pose a tougher challenge for Washington despite the Leafs' recent woes. Washington also certainly wants to make a strong bid for top seed in the East, something they can accomplish if they play well with their longest home stretch before the final seven games of the regular season.

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