Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, in red, is knocked out of the way by Jason Pominville of the Buffalo Sabres during Tuesday’s game at the Verizon Center. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The National Hockey League playoffs have started. Well, not really. The NHL playoffs officially get underway the week of April 8.

But Tuesday’s game between the Washington Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres was like a playoff game. The Caps and the Sabres are locked in a struggle for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Division playoffs.

Unfortunately, the Caps stunk out the Verizon Center and lost, 5-1. Now the Caps are two points behind the Sabres with five games remaining. (In the NHL, a win counts for two points and a loss in overtime earns one.) So every game is really important for Washington. They can’t afford many bad games like the one they played Tuesday.

If the Caps make the playoffs, they will probably then have to play the top team in the East — either the New York Rangers or the Pittsburgh Penguins. Washington has a slim chance of winning the Southeast Division, in which case they would have a possibly easier first-round opponent, but I wouldn’t count on that.

Even though the Capitals have had an up-and-down season, they still have a chance to pull off an upset in the playoffs. The NHL playoffs are not like the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, where the No. 1 seed has never lost to the No. 16 seed in the first round.

Last season, for example, more than half of the 89 Stanley Cup playoff games were decided by one goal, including 20 games that went into overtime. That means a lucky bounce or a great save can be the difference between winning and losing.

Many of the Capitals know from personal experience that anything can happen in the playoffs. In 2010, the Caps had the best record in the NHL and were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Division. But the Montreal Canadiens shocked the Caps, beating Washington in their opening-round series.

Washington has plenty of talented players. Alex Ovechkin, the Caps’ all-star left-winger, is finally playing like the “Great 8” of the past instead of the “Okay 8” he has been most of the season. Maybe this is the year Ovechkin and the Caps put it all together and make a long playoff run.

But first the Caps have to make the playoffs. They have another big game tonight against the defending Stanley Cup champs, the Boston Bruins. If you like hockey, you may want to get all your homework done before dinner and ask your mom or dad if you can stay up to watch the game on TV or listen on the radio.

Tell them it’s almost a playoff game.

Fred Bowen writes the sports opinion column for KidsPost. He is the author of 17 sports books for kids. His latest are “Quarterback Season” and “Real Hoops.”