As he gathered his Washington Capitals in the hours before they played the New York Islanders on Wednesday night, Coach Peter Laviolette did not stray from the message he had delivered time and time again over the past few weeks. They had to find a way to win a hockey game and collect points, he told them, even though they all knew their odds had already grown slim to make a ninth consecutive postseason appearance.
The Capitals have vowed to go down swinging until it is mathematically no longer possible to make the playoffs — and after a painful 2-1 loss in a shootout, they’re almost to that point. For the better part of the decade, the final weeks of the season were usually accompanied by a magic number the Capitals needed to hit to clinch a postseason berth. This year, that number is modestly tragic — the combined amount of points they can lose before elimination — and it dropped to 10 with seven games to play.
The setback came in an anomaly of a game, with few scoring chances, little room to operate and no penalties until the final minute of overtime. When it couldn’t be settled in the extra frame, Kyle Palmieri scored the game-winner in the skills challenge for the Islanders, who remained in the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
“We know how it looks. We can do the math, and we know where we stand,” Capitals defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “We’re going to focus on what we can control.”
For four days, the Capitals had licked their wounds after their most crushing loss of the season — a 4-3 setback against the Pittsburgh Penguins — that both kept the Penguins in the second wild-card spot and allowed three other teams to solidify their spot ahead of the Capitals in the playoff chase.
At the very least, Wednesday provided an opportunity against a rival they had dominated earlier this month on Long Island, and the Capitals appeared to relish the chance to share the ice again with the Islanders from the onset. Veteran winger Tom Wilson delivered a thunderous check early, and the Capitals’ defense kept the pace manageable on a night when they blocked 27 shots and doled out 27 hits.
“The game was played differently here tonight. We knew it would be played that way. I thought we got better at tying to generate. The first period was really tight. It was really low chances and low shots. Not a lot going on,” Laviolette said.
The Islanders registered just three shots in the first 20 minutes. They scored on their fifth — a sneaky wrister by Pierre Engvall leaked past Capitals goaltender Darcy Kuemper (28 saves) to make it 1-0 at 3:52 of the second period.
Washington responded by seeking to sow chaos on the other end of the ice — its lines charged and worked to create traffic in front of the net while the Capitals’ defensemen became more aggressive offensively. Less than three minutes after Engvall’s goal, the Capitals knotted things after winning the battle on a loose puck — winger Conor Sheary backhanded a shot past Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (25 saves).
“Every time we play these guys, there seems to be not a lot of room, especially five-on-five, and when you play pretty much 60 minutes at even strength, it’s hard to create.” Sheary said. “They’re always back. They’re always above the rush. They’re sound defensively. But we had opportunities to score. They did, too.”
Washington’s veteran core had a series of looks to win it in overtime. Forward T.J. Oshie had three shots on goal in the first two minutes of overtime. Alex Ovechkin had a backhand blocked by Sorokin. Wilson had a one-timer clang off the post — and he was called for the game’s first penalty with 28 seconds remaining, but Washington held off a final push by New York to send it to a shootout.
“It’s tough,” Laviolette said to open his postgame remarks, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts. “It’s tough that we lost a game, lost a point. A point is a big thing right now.”
Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ loss:
While the Capitals are as healthy as they have been all season, they played a second straight game without forward Sonny Milano, who remains out with an upper-body injury. Milano did return to the ice earlier Wednesday, participating in an optional morning skate in a blue noncontact sweater.
Sheary stays hot
Sheary, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, continued his late-season revival Wednesday. His second-period goal was his 15th of the season and gave him his third in four games — he has four points total in that stretch — after he went 21 games without a goal.