The Ottawa Senators hope the return of one of the league's most dynamic defensive talents can help them avoid a third straight loss when they visit the newly-crowned Washington Capitals for Thursday's game at Verizon Center.
The Capitals won their fifth Southeast Division title in six years after beating the Winnipeg Jets by a 5-3 score on Tuesday. Washington is now locked into the third seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs.
While the Caps' postseason standing is set in stone, the Senators are still battling for a spot in the playoffs and the probable return of defenseman Erik Karlsson could tip the balance in Ottawa's favor over its last three games.
Karlsson, last season's Norris Trophy winner, was cleared for contact last Friday and the Sens could have the Swedish defenseman back on Thursday.
"If he says he's ready to play, then he's ready to play," head coach Paul MacLean said. "He's done the work."
Karlsson had six goals and four assists in 14 games this season before sustaining a severe cut to his left Achilles when he got clipped by the skate of Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke on Feb. 13. He was originally expected to miss 4- to-6 months of action due to the cut, but he shocked everyone by resuming skating three weeks ago. Karlsson has missed 31 games due to the injury.
Ottawa hopes Karlsson can help its playoff push, as the Sens are one of three teams fighting for the last two playoff spots in the East. The Senators are tied at 52 points with the New York Rangers and one point ahead of ninth- seeded Winnipeg. The Jets play their final game of the regular season tonight against visiting Montreal, while the Rangers visit Carolina for the second-to- last game on their schedule.
MacLean's club will qualify for the playoffs for a second straight spring if they can win any of their last three games, or if Winnipeg loses in regulation to the Canadiens on Thursday.
The Senators certainly could use Karlsson's help after losing their past two games in regulation by a combined 7-2 score. After dropping a 4-1 decision to visiting Toronto on Saturday, the Sens were handed a 3-1 home loss by Pittsburgh on Monday.
Ottawa fired 35 shots at Tomas Vokoun on Monday, but the Pittsburgh netminder stopped all but one in the Penguins' road triumph. Patrick Wiercioch scored Ottawa's goal while Craig Anderson stopped 21-of-24 shots for the Senators, who have dropped two straight on the heels of a promising four-game winning streak.
"They capitalized on a couple of opportunities, and that was the difference," said Senators defenseman Marc Methot.
Ottawa is playing two if its final three games on the road, where it is 8-11-3 this year. The Sens will host Philadelphia on Saturday before closing the regular season Sunday in Boston.
The Capitals clinched another division title with Tuesday's win over Winnipeg. Alex Ovechkin posted a goal and an assist and the Russian superstar has a league-leading 31 goals this season, two more than Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos.
"We did it and everyone is pretty happy right now," said Ovechkin. "It's a first step, but we still have a lot of work to do here. We're clicking pretty good right now, so we'll see where this goes."
Nicklas Backstrom, Jason Chimera and Mathieu Perreault each gave a goal and an assist and Matt Hendricks also scored for the Capitals, who have surged in April with a mark of 10-1-0. Braden Holtby stopped 24 shots in the win.
Washington has two games left on a three-game homestand to close the regular season. The Caps are 14-8-0 as the host this season and they have won four straight and 11 of their last 12 home games against Ottawa.
The Sens have won three straight overall against Washington.