Although the Capitals’ magic number to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference is now one -- whether a point gained by Washington or a point that the Flyers fail to obtain -- their opponent is still to be determined.
Montreal, Buffalo and the New York Rangers are each separated by a point in sixth, seventh and eighth place, respectively, so the standings could certainly shift. We’ll take a look at each of those teams and how they stack up with the Capitals heading into the final few games of the NHL regular season.
Record: 41-29-10, 92 points
Current seed: Seventh
Remaining schedule: 4/8 vs. Flyers; 4/9 at Blue Jackets.
Record vs. Capitals this season: 1-3-0
The Sabres are the little engine that could in this year’s race to the postseason, having accumulated a league-best 32 points since Feb. 22. The organization as a whole appears to have been rejuvenated under the new ownership of Terry Pegula, and on the ice, Buffalo hasn’t lost consecutive games since he took over.
The Sabres may be this year’s squad that puts everything together just at the right time in order to enter the postseason on a high note. Sparking the offense is the top line of Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville that has eight goals and 15 points in 14 games together. As the Capitals know from past experience, a hot team heading into the playoffs is capable of anything.
Goaltender Ryan Miller has missed the past four games with an upper-body injury -- possibly a bruised collarbone, according to various reports -- but rookie Jhonas Enroth stepped in and prevented the Sabres from dropping off without the all-star netminder. Even with this small wrench thrown in late in the regular season, Miller appears set to play in one of Buffalo’s final two games and take the reins once again in the postseason.
Against the Capitals: Washington’s last two meetings against the Sabres this season were decided by one goal. Most recently, the Capitals earned a 5-4 overtime win on April 2 off a shot by Alex Ovechkin that redirected off of two different Sabres before beating Enroth for the final tally.
If that game was a playoff preview, it showed glimpses of comebacks by both teams but imperfect play on both ends. The Sabres started slow and fell into a two-goal hole in that particular outing, but veteran Coach Lindy Ruff quickly called a timeout, and his team responded in only a few minutes to tie the game. From that point on, Buffalo’s consistency and discipline when it comes to bringing all five skaters back into its defensive zone was on full display, and it led to significantly fewer five-on-five chances for the Capitals.
From the beat writer: Mike Harrington from the Buffalo News shares his take on what the biggest question is for the Sabres as they head into the playoffs.
The biggest question facing the Sabres is which version of Ryan Miller they will get? Will they see the one that won the Vezina Trophy and was a goal away from the gold medal last year in Vancouver, or the one that was outplayed by Boston rookie Tuukka Rask in last year’s playoffs? The one that struggled in October and December of this season, or the one that’s been a standout in March and the NHL’s First Star of the Week?
The Buffalo power play went 0 for 19 in last year’s series against Boston (sounds familiar to Caps fans), but the series really turned when Miller allowed Patrice Bergeron to tie Game Four with seven minutes left on a weak five-hole goal from the same spot that was eerily similar to Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal in the Olympics. Buffalo lost that game in double OT and never got the series even.
Miller battled injuries, inconsistent play and a 31-game starting stretch that sapped him of his energy this season. But the Sabres have given him three games off where he didn’t even dress and have cut back his practice and morning-skate work. The result is he’s been standing up in his crease more and making better reads on opposing rushes than he has all season.
Although his numbers are not as good as the Caps’ duo in goal, Miller is going to be expected to be better than them in a head-to-head matchup. They’re not $6.25 million goaltenders. Neither was Rask. Miller better win the matchup this time if he wants his team to have a chance.
Previously: New York Rangers