Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Three points and a world of difference

Tonight, when the puck drops in Buffalo and the Sabres take on the Washington Capitals, the teams will be separated by only three points in the standings. Both teams will have played 67 games at that point, and both teams are currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Aside from those points, the two franchises couldn't be headed in more opposite directions.

The Capitals are clearly on the upswing. Their rebuild may have cost the team in the short term, but the organization's pre-lockout fire sale set the team up to be successful in the long term. Along with winning the lottery and grabbing all-universe talent Alex Ovechkin, the team has steadily stockpiled draft picks and prospects, including (but not limited to) NHL regulars Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Shoanne Morrison. The Caps also have highly touted defensive prospects "Giant" Joe Finley and Karl "the human quote machine" Alzner in the pipeline, as well as more draft picks than you can shake a stick at. Once the organization sensed the time was right, it was able to use a 2nd round draft pick and a mid-level prospect to bolster the team's playoff hopes. And the Caps have one of the better (and wealthier) ownership groups in the game, which made their superduperultramega deal to keep Ovechkin in DC for 13 years possible.

Meanwhile, the Sabres have been on a downswing ever since their run in the Stanley Cup playoffs was so rudely snuffed out by Ottawa last season. The Sabres have since lost their top two centers (Drury and Briere) to free agency, and were forced to part with their top defenseman at the trade deadline. And before Sabres fans start moaning about the financial issues that prevented them from keeping their players, remember that the Sabres had the opportunity to sign Briere to a long term deal the season before last, and decided to take their chances with a one year deal with the young center. The decision cost them one of their best players and what could have been a cornerstone of a young team. Instead, they got nothing for Briere when he bolted for Flyers and a boatload of cash. Now, certainly financial issues motivated the moves (or lack thereof) that the Sabres have made the past few seasons, but the fact is they've also made some poor personnel decisions to compound their plight.

As these two teams scrap for a playoff spot, one thing is certain. The future looks a whole lot brighter for the Caps than it does for the Sabres.

But tonight is not about the future. Tonight is about the present. Can the Caps come up large against a depleted but passionate Sabres squad and pull within one of Carolina for the division lead (and within 2 points of the Rangers and the #8 seed)?

And by the way, today is one of the few days in the season where it's permissible to root for the Thrashers.

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