WASHINGTON – The Washington Capitals woke up this morning in unfamiliar territory — on the outside of a playoff position with five games to play.
Since the 2008-09 season, the Caps have coasted into the NHL’s second season with a playoff berth assured weeks in advance.
But after Tuesday’s 5-1 loss against the Buffalo Sabres, the Caps find themselves in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the eighth place Sabres.
“We’ve always had seasons like last year and the year before,” said defenseman Karl Alzner. “Being in such a close battle right up to the end is a little bit different. I like the pressure and [it’s nice] that every game is so meaningful, but I think starting to experience both- I think I prefer to go in with a little more ease.”
Even dating back to his time with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, Alzner has never been in a playoff race that has come down to the final week of the regular-season. Ditto for teammates John Carlson, Jay Beagle, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby who have all been part of first place teams in both Hershey and Washington.
“Right now we all know it’s in our hands,” Alzner said. We’ve got to win these games. We win all five then we’re pretty much in I think because we’ve got the tie-breakers and all that. It’s just guys are frustrated with us losing not only to Buffalo last night but [in overtime against] Winnipeg the way we did. We could have changed things and made it a heck of a lot easier on ourselves.”
Instead, the Caps must now play catch up with Florida (five points), Ottawa (four points), and Buffalo (two points) still within reach even though the time is running low.
It is not an enviable position the Caps find themselves in, but one not uncommon to a few veterans who have experienced late season playoff races in their previous places of work.
“We were in a tough spot going into the final couple games of the season,” Troy Brouwer said of last year’s Chicago Blackhawks. “Same thing- we got in by another team losing on the very last day. There are a lot of situations going down the season where you’ve got to come into a game and you need to have a good effort and you have to find ways to get points.”
Brouwer missed the last three games of the regular season with a shoulder injury but watched from the press box as the Blackhawks entered the final game of the season needing just one point to clinch a playoff berth.
Instead, the Blackhawks lost 4-3 at home against the Detroit Red Wings and needed the Minnesota Wild to beat the Dallas Stars later that same day to assure a playoff position. The Wild won 5-3 and Chicago was playoff-bound by the slimmest of margins.
During the 2008-09 season, then-Florida Panther Tomas Vokoun was not as lucky. The Panthers won six of their final eight regular-season games, but still finished in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, just shy of a playoff appearance.
“The thing is we won those games and we still weren’t in control of what’s going to happen,” Vokoun said. “We ended up losing on a tie-breaker and having negative win against the team we were competing with [Montreal]. But right now we shouldn’t be looking at anything- just at winning tomorrow and playing like we need to.”
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