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Opportunity Knocks

Coaches and (smart) players rarely use this expression, but since I'm neither, here it is: Tonight's game against the Lightning is a 'must win' for Ovie and Co.

There, I said it.

If the Caps (7-1-1 in their last nine and coming off back-to-back solid, 60 minute efforts) are going to keep climbing through the Eastern Conference standings and challenge the Thrashers for first place in the Southeast Division, they've got to beat teams that are below them in the standings. They did it against the lowly Flyers on Saturday, and opportunity knocks again tonight against the Bolts (1-7-1 in their last nine).

Although Tampa Bay had a lighthearted practice yesterday according to the Tampa Tribune, smacking around tennis balls wrapped in tape on the ice, don't let that fool you. Everyone is feeling the pressure right now. With one of the highest payrolls in the league (about $43 million), 13th place in the conference is nowhere near good enough. The Caps can take advantage of that tightness by jumping out to an early lead.

As I've said on numerous occasions, that's what playoff teams do.

The Caps, however, might be without defenseman John Erskine, who did not participate in this morning's pregame skate. He's officially considered questionable for tonight. If he doesn't play, the pairings will probably look like this: Morrisonn and Pothier; Heward and Eminger; and Green and Muir. At least that's how Hanlon had them paired at practice yesterday.

Winger Matt Bradley also did not skate. Although he's listed as day-to-day, his hand injury clearly is not healing as quickly as had been hoped. He'll likely miss his fifth game because of it.

On an unrelated note, here's the latest update on All-Star fan voting for the Eastern Conference team:

1 Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh 626,175
2 Alex Ovechkin Washington 356,215
3 Daniel Briere Buffalo 350,699
4 Maxim Afinogenov Buffalo 342,022
5 Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh 325,631
6 Jaromir Jagr NY Rangers 249,346
7 Chris Drury Buffalo 245,035
8 Erik Cole Carolina 225,006
9 Rod Brind'Amour Carolina 207,329
10 Ilya Kovalchuk Atlanta 187,499

By Tarik El-Bashir  |  December 19, 2006; 1:01 PM ET
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