For days, the Washington Capitals spoke of Tuesday night’s contest as having the weight of a playoff game. Coach Dale Hunter even compared it to the intensity of a Game 7. If that were truly the case, the Capitals’ season would be over.
But despite its latest listless outing in a 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Washington still has five more games to secure a postseason berth — if it wants to fight for one.
“It’s a tough loss but it’s not a devastating one,” Brooks Laich said. “We reduce ourselves to fighting every day, you don’t look any further than that. You live to fight one more day and you make the most of your chances. All we can do is win our hockey games. That’s all we can do.”
This gut-wrenching defeat sent the Verizon Center crowd streaming toward the exits with half of the third period remaining, knocked the Capitals (38-31-8, 84 points) out of a playoff position and threw a wrench in their ability to truly control their own destiny.
Washington resides in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, two points behind Buffalo (38-29-10). The Capitals fell five points behind the Florida Panthers — who defeated Montreal, 3-2, in a shootout and hold a game in hand — for the Southeast Division lead and the automatic top-three playoff seed that comes with it.
Throughout this push to the playoffs, the Capitals have prided themselves on holding their future in their hands. Now that Washington’s grip has loosened, the margin for error in the final five contests is razor-thin.
“Now we’re going to start needing a little bit of help and that’s kind of the first time we’ve been in this position,” Mike Knuble said. “You’ve got to set a target of trying to get four out of these five and finish extremely strong. And then even if you do that and hold up that end of the bargain, you’ve got to wait for a little bit of help somewhere else.”
Washington started goaltending prospect Braden Holtby, whose recent success has earned praise from teammates and the coaching staff, against the Sabres and veteran all-star netminder Ryan Miller, who improved to 14-1-3 in his past 18 starts.
While Miller gobbled up the Capitals’ early chances, Holtby demonstrated his risk-reward style but with unfortunate emphasis on the former.
A no-look pass from behind his own net resulted in a turnover and by the time Holtby made it back to his crease, Cody McCormick was shooting the puck across the goal line to make it 1-0 Buffalo 8 minutes 45 seconds into the contest. With less than two minutes remaining in the first Holtby poke-checked the puck through traffic, directly out to the Sabres’ Drew Stafford. When his first shot trickled through Holtby’s legs, Stafford swooped in to knock it home for a 2-0 edge.
After Thomas Vanek recorded a third tally 2:31 into the second period on a rebound, Coach Dale Hunter pulled Holtby and inserted Michal Neuvirth (11 saves).
“They’re not pucks that I can’t stop. Those are ones that I know I can, I’m capable of,” said Holtby, who gave up three goals on 18 shots. “A couple rebounds and a puck-handling error. That’s basically how it goes. As far as the game, I felt good. I felt my head was in it. Just a little erratic with my movement at times, and it’s something to work on.”
Alexander Semin put Washington on the board less than three minutes later at 3-1, but when the home team received its best chance to mount a comeback it faltered. On a power play late in the second, with the Sabres reeling from injuries to two defensemen and another in the penalty box, Alex Ovechkin bobbled the puck at the point.
Ovechkin then lost the battle to retrieve the puck in the neutral zone to Jason Pominville, who took advantage of a two-on-one to send a dagger of a short-handed goal past Neuvirth for a 4-1 Buffalo advantage.
“The goal on the short-handed — I should play [the puck with] my skate, not stick, but it happens,” Ovechkin said. “This mistake probably cost us the game.”
In the third, the Sabres needed only to support Miller (44 saves) and clear the rebounds from in front of their goal. Washington fired 19 shots in the final frame, but none truly seemed to fluster Miller or Buffalo, which received its fifth goal from Stafford on an odd-man rush near the midway point of the period.
The sting of this defeat can’t last long for the Capitals if they want to earn a playoff berth over the next 11 days.
“We’re going to have to be a desperate hockey team, every single second of every game,” Karl Alzner said. “You see us get desperate in the third period a lot this year. It’s going to start right from the drop of the puck. And I just hope we can carry it out for the full 60 minutes.”
Capitals notes: Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed 39 games with a concussion, passed his neuropsychological baseline test on Tuesday, General Manager George McPhee said. There remains no timetable for the center to return to the lineup.