PITTSBURGH — After their gut-wrenching loss here Tuesday night, some members of the Washington Capitals tried to take comfort in the fact that they had played one of their more complete games of the season, holding the Eastern Conference leading Pittsburgh Penguins largely in check with strong defense.
But while some focused on the positives — center Nicklas Backstrom went so far as to say the Capitals were the better team — goaltender Braden Holtby was blunt. Moral victories and taking solace in how they fell doesn’t change the fact that, for the fifth time in the past seven games, they lost, undone this time by a missed opportunity on a power play and a turnover.
“We’re not the better team if we lose. I think that’s an excuse we’ve been making all year. . . We say we play good; just bounces didn’t go our way,” Holtby said after the 2-1 defeat. “If we don’t win, we’re not the better team. Simple as that.
“Bottom line is we have to win games. I don’t care if we’re the worst team or the better team,” Holtby added. “It doesn’t matter on the score sheet. We need to win games.”
The window for Washington to win games — and remain relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff conversation — is beginning to close.
With 19 games left to play, the Capitals sit nine points behind the Southeast Division leading Winnipeg Jets, who they visit for critical back-to-back games Thursday and Friday. A pair of losses against the Jets would essentially wipe out any remaining hope of Washington capturing the division title and the automatic postseason berth that goes with it.
If the 14th-place Capitals would be unable to win their division, they would need to surpass six teams in order to move into a playoff position. After the loss in Pittsburgh, Washington is seven points back of the eighth-place New York Rangers.
Neither route is an easy one, and both require the Capitals to start gaining points. It doesn’t matter how they manage to get them over the next two days in Winnipeg, whether through well-played or sloppy outings.
“The next two will be big for us — can keep us in the race or it can push us down and out of it,” Mike Ribeiro said, adding that while the Capitals would prefer to win in regulation, they’re not going to be picky. “At this point, we’ll be ready to take anything. If you get it in a shootout you’ll take those ones, too, and push this season along and keep scratching out [wins].”
The Capitals’ execution under first-year Coach Adam Oates has certainly improved since they opened the season 2-8-1, one of the five worst starts in franchise history, but that hasn’t translated into consistent wins. The various reasons for the losses despite otherwise solid play on any given night — whether penalties, poor goaltending or insufficient contributions from stars — don’t change the fact that Washington has dug itself into a deep hole at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
“It didn’t matter then, it doesn’t matter now,” Troy Brouwer said. “In such a short season and such an important, tight, condensed schedule that we have here on the road — moral victories, yeah, they’re good when you look at the video and you see what you’ve done, but it doesn’t get you anywhere in the standings, and that’s what matters right now.”
From the beginning of the season, Oates has preached method. Of course, he wants the Capitals to win enough to ultimately qualify for the playoffs, but he takes a long-term view of the process in Washington.
Establishing the relentless style of play that he wants the Capitals to utilize to the point that it becomes a reflex should yield better results. Oates doesn’t believe it’s a zero-sum game.
“Obviously we want those points, but that’s a Knute Rockne speech. That’s not real,” Oates said. “You can only play. If we lose, we’re not happy about it, if you win, good. The more you play correctly, you win more games.”