Coach Terry Murray and many players say this is the year the team can go all the way to the finals. Washington will begin its quest for Lord Stanley's cup when it faces the defending NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins tonight (7:05) at the Capital Centre in the opener of a Patrick Division semifinal series.
Washington has had its best season, finishing in second place overall in the NHL, behind the New York Rangers, and second in the division. The team had the second-highest goal total in the NHL, the best intra-divisional record in the league (22-12-1), won 45 games, also second to the Rangers, and were 25-12-3 at home, also second to the Rangers, who play the New Jersey Devils in the other Patrick Division semifinal series.
"This should be a very interesting series," said Murray. "The time off for the strike [10 days] gave both teams the chance to heal their wounded and also have a little break. The caliber of play should be higher than it has been, and it should be a very exciting series for the fans."
"We have to take advantage of the home-ice advantage; it's something we worked all season to get. We are in a must-win situation tonight and Tuesday."
Pittsburgh has an explosive offense, led by Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens, the No. 1 and 2 scorers in the NHL. Lemieux, however, might not be available for tonight's game. He said his injured right shoulder has improved, but he still isn't sure if he will be ready.
"We'll have to see what happens tomorrow," he said after practice yesterday morning.
Lemieux said the bruised shoulder affects his passing and shooting.
"There's no strength," he said. "I can't raise my arm like I want."
The Penguins led the league in goals scored with 343; Washington had 330.
"Pittsburgh creates a lot of offensive chances, and we are going to have to play very good defense to contain them," said Murray, who has his team in the playoffs for the third straight season. "The key to our success could be the play of [goalie] Donnie Beaupre. He has to play well because Pittsburgh has people who can make the games exciting.
"We've matched up very well with Pittsburgh this season, and it's because of our defense. We have big, strong, mobile guys who do the job back there. We have to continue to be aggressive and take the body, to take the Pittsburgh forwards out of their game. Pittsburgh has pushed us to a higher level of play and we have responded."
The Capitals defense has such hitters and scorers as Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate, Calle Johansson and Sylvain Cote, plus defensive standouts Rod Langway, who is in his 10th playoffs with the Capitals, and Brad Schlegel and Ken Sabourin.