Caps face playoffs with confidence

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Washington Capitals will finish the regular season in sixth or seventh place in the Eastern Conference, but the way they're talking, they may be No. 1 in terms of confidence as the Stanley Cup playoffs approach.

Even though their opponent in the first round -- Quebec, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh -- is to be determined, the Caps say they are ready for all comers.

"I don't think any of the three teams we may face want to face us in the first round," said right wing Keith Jones. "I'm sure they're watching us more than we're watching them.

"I wouldn't want to play us. We're a hard-working team. We're not a finesse team, but we get the job done. The way we play isn't the same as those three big teams play and I don't think they'd appreciate having a guy in their face at every turn they take on the ice, and that's the kind of hockey we play. It will be a tough task to beat us in a seven-game series."

The results tonight and tomorrow night will determine the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference and the bottom three seeds. The only Eastern Conference series that is set is No. 4 Boston vs. No. 5 New Jersey.

The Caps will play the Penguins tonight without centers Joe Juneau and Michal Pivonka, who are sidelined with leg injuries.

Caps coach Jim Schoenfeld said Juneau and Pivonka were injured during the 2-2 tie with Florida on Sunday. He said both will be kept off the ice for three days and be ready for the playoff opener. However, he said he would not give an opposing team even the slightest edge by saying specifically what the injuries are.

"They're not being rested," Schoenfeld said. "They're not playing because they're injured. You hate to have injuries. Your last game of the regular season is the one you want to set yourself up for the playoffs. But obviously, now, there are two guys off our power play, the centerman and the left point, so we have to take our last game as part of our building process."

Pittsburgh still has a chance to finish in first place in the conference. For the Caps, a win tonight would ensure they would stay ahead of seventh-place Buffalo.

"I don't know if it matters who we play [in the playoffs]," said defenseman Jim Johnson. "I think if we beat Pittsburgh, we'll probably play Pittsburgh in the first round, and I don't think Pittsburgh wants to play us in the first round. I think they fear us a little bit, the type of team we are. They know we're going to bang for 60 minutes, that we're going to hit hard and grind away. . . . I think each of those teams knows that it will take an enormous amount of work to beat us."

So, the Caps are in basic agreement with their leading scorer, Peter Bondra, who had this suggestion: "Let's just get through this last game and see who we get. Then we will go play our best and our chances of winning are as good as anyone else's."

NOTE: Schoenfeld would not announce his starting goaltender but said his decision would not be based on protecting Jim Carey's slight lead in the race for goals-against average honors. "Absolutely not," the coach said. "That doesn't enter into it at all."

BONDRA'S GOAL

Washington right wing Peter Bondra is clinging to his two-goal edge in the race for the NHL goal-scoring title, leading Quebec's Owen Nolan, Detroit's Ray Sheppard and Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr, 32-30.

Bondra will have his last regular-season goal-scoring opportunity tonight against Jagr and the Penguins. Jagr will have another game tomorrow against Florida, Nolan another tomorrow against Hartford and Sheppard will try for the last time against St. Louis.

"Checkers are trying to slow me down now," said Bondra. "At the blue line, they hook me a little, and that means I have to play a little tougher and just get through it. . . . I have one more game left. Someone can get hot and get a hat trick and beat me, or I could have a chance to score a goal and win. But I don't even think about it. Just being there on top already means something for me."

The NHL's top goal-scorers through Sunday's games:

Player, Team ....... ........ Goals

Peter Bondra, Washington ....... 32

Ray Sheppard, Detroit .......... 30

Owen Nolan, Quebec ............. 30

Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh ....... 30

Theoren Fleury, Calgary ........ 29

*Brett Hull, St. Louis ......... 29

*Alexei Zhamnov, Winnipeg ...... 29

Eric Lindros, Philadelphia ..... 29

CAPITALS TONIGHT

Opponent: Pittsburgh Penguins

Site: USAir Arena, Landover

Time: 7:30

TV/Radio: HTS/WMAL (630 AM)

Outlook: Pittsburgh is still in the race for home-ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and Washington is battling to finish sixth. Pittsburgh has not announced its starting goaltender, but it is likely to be Ken Wregget (25-7-2, 3.07 goals-against average) or Tom Barrasso (0-1-1, 3.84). The Caps starter will be Jim Carey (18-6-3, 2.13) or Olie Kolzig (1-8-2, 2.53). Washington C Joe Juneau (leg), C Michal Pivonka (leg) and D Mark Tinordi (sprained knee) are out. Pittsburgh D Kjell Samuelsson (flu) and D Ulf Samuelsson (bruised knee) missed Sunday's game but are expected to play tonight, despite being listed as day-to-day.

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