When the Capitals resume their season Thursday night against the Panthers, they will have just 23 games left to secure their place in the postseason.
One of five Eastern Conference teams within three points of the second wild-card spot as of Wednesday, the Capitals will have little to no margin for error as they attempt to prolong their season.
“I think everybody [is] going to have to step up their level of hockey,” forward Alex Ovechkin said. “You can’t lose five games or you’re going to be done right away. I’m pretty sure this organization is not ready for that and we’re going to fight and we’re going to do our best.”
The NHL’s recent Olympic hiatus provided most of the team with a two-week respite to recharge for what is arguably the most grueling stretch run in the league.
Of Washington’s 23 remaining games, all but two are against teams either currently occupying a playoff spot or within four points of a potential berth. Thirteen are on the road and 11 are against teams that reconvened this week ranked among the NHL’s top 10.
The Capitals face a daunting task if they have any hope of making their seventh straight playoff appearance.
“It’s for real,” forward Martin Erat said. “If we want to do some damage in the playoffs, we have to first get there.”
In six of seven full NHL seasons since 2005, Eastern teams have needed at least 92 points to qualify for the playoffs. For the Capitals (27-23-9, 63 points) to reach that threshold, they will have to earn 29 points, about 63 percent of the points available to them.
That will require a significant uptick in their overall play; to date, the Capitals have earned 53.4 percent of available points.
A source of motivation can be found in how Washington has finished recent seasons. In four of the past six years, the Capitals have won at least 13 of their final 20 games.
Facing the harsh reality of missing the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Capitals can only hope that they have once again saved their best for last.
“Our team has the skill and we have the will to get ourselves there,” forward Eric Fehr said. “We’ve had our backs against the wall a number of times and we’ve always fought out of it, so we expect that to happen again this year.”