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Washington Capitals need to win final two regular season games to clinch NHL playoff berth

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After five months of up and down results, the Washington Capitals’ playoff hopes rest on the results of their final two regular season games. The stakes couldn’t be any higher, and the implications couldn’t be any clearer.

Win Thursday at home against the Florida Panthers and Saturday at the New York Rangers, and the Capitals will make the postseason for the fifth consecutive year. Fail to do so and the situation grows a little more complicated.

Though he understands that ultimatum, Capitals forward Brooks Laich refused even to entertain the thought that Washington could miss the postseason.

“I have a belief we’re going to be in the playoffs and that’s it,” Laich said Wednesday. “I don’t want to discuss any scenario that we’re not. My belief is that we’re going to be in the playoffs.”

Washington (88 points) is tied with the Buffalo Sabres but sits in eighth place in the Eastern Conference by virtue of the first tiebreaker, regulation and overtime wins (36 to 32).

That advantage puts the Capitals firmly in control of how things play out over the next three days; Buffalo would have to surpass them in points to move ahead in the standings. Any tie between the teams at the end of the regular season results in a Washington playoff berth. The Sabres also play two more games: Thursday at Philadelphia and Saturday at Boston.

“It’s nice to know exactly what it is. We always say that you hold your own fate in your hands and now we actually know exactly what we have to do,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’s not like try to win five of the next eight games, it’s win two and you’re good. That’s pretty much it. It’s simple.”

It’s simple, but like many things, easier said than done. Florida, which lost, 5-4, in overtime to Winnipeg on Tuesday, is working to secure only one more point in its final two contests to clinch its first division crown. And while the Rangers have sewn up the No. 1 seed in the East, it’s unlikely they will loaf through a contest against a potential first-round foe.

Adding further intrigue to the matchup with Florida (92 points) at Verizon Center is that a slim chance remains for the Capitals to claim the Southeast Division title and the automatic third seed. To do so, Washington would need to record a pair of wins and see the Panthers, who have a league-high 18 overtime losses, fail to pick up a point here or at home against Carolina in the finale.

While it may still be in reach, the Capitals insist that they aren’t focusing on the possibility of snatching the division but rather just winning to guarantee a spot — any spot — in the postseason.

“I don’t think we care what seed we’re in,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “As long as we’re in the playoffs — we know there’s good teams in there. I don’t think it matters, just got to focus on winning the last two games.”

Said Laich: “I don’t think you can get too wrapped up in that. You want it but I don’t think you can let that take you over. The focus has just got to be on winning the game.”

Fighting for a playoff spot this late in the season isn’t something the Capitals have needed to do since the 2007-08 campaign, but they’ve been playing important contests to remain in the hunt for more than a month. So in a sense, this pressure is nothing new — except that the margin for error is virtually nonexistent. The Capitals must finally take advantage of the little control they have on the situation.

“You control it in your room and you control what you do on the ice and how you come into the game, and then you’ve got to live with the results,” winger Mike Knuble said. “The good thing is that when it’s all said and done, you’re either patting yourself on the back, saying, ‘Great job, we got in, we took care of our business,’ or you have nobody to blame but yourself. That’s the good part.”

Capitals notes: Troy Brouwer didn’t practice Wednesday and was given a maintenance day, according to a team spokesman. Hunter said he expects the winger to play against Florida. . . .

Michal Neuvirth will start in net for the Capitals on Thursday, Coach Dale Hunter said.

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