It's becoming increasingly unlikely that the Capitals and Hurricanes will face off in the first round of the playoffs. But Tuesday night's game was a showcase of one team in desperation playoff mode and another trying to shift into that gear.
The Caps wound up losing 3-2 in a shootout, but penalties and at times an inability to keep up with Carolina pushed the game into overtime to begin with and led to players being self-critical afterward.
Alex Ovechkin, making his return from an undisclosed injury, said, "It was like a playoff game for them," while lamenting his team's lack of the same mindset.
"We gotta be able to compete and beat any team that's gonna come hard, 'cause everyone's gonna be fighting for their lives in the playoffs," defenseman John Carlson said. "I feel like at some points in the game we were just kinda coasting a little bit instead of pushing the envelope."
Coach Bruce Boudreau took exception to that notion, instead blaming penalties for the game's "lackluster" nature (the Caps took six). He said when the Caps played with emotion they were able to hang with the Hurricanes, who moved to within three points of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with the victory.
It's hard to fake desperation, and while the Caps admitted earlier in the day that they control their own fate for the most part in the East, this defeat dropped them three points behind the Flyers in the race for the top seed with Philadelphia still owning a game in hand. Because of things like that, Boudreau insisted his team has no reason to coast.
"We're not my any stretch of the means taking a vacation until the playoffs," he said. "We wanna play hard and win every game."
They appeared to be in control of this game up 2-1 and actually matching Carolina's play for long spurts. But a soft goal by Jeff Skinner on Semyon Varlamov early in the third period sapped some energy from the Verizon Center crowd and led to the Caps playing defensively for much of the rest of the game.
And while Alexander Semin scored the Caps' first goal and set up the second, his hooking penalty with 3:19 left put Washington in a tough spot.
"Well, he was our best offensive player, but I think at the same time he did the same thing he's been doing for five years: taking a dumb penalty with four minutes to go in the game," Boudreau said. "The ref didn't wanna call any penalties, but you have to call that. It's a bad hook in the neutral zone."
Semin skated out his shift out of the box but didn't see the ice the rest of the game.
The Caps couldn't cash in on a few chances the rest of the way, and Skinner scored the game-winner in the shootout – handing them just their third loss of any kind this month.
"We've been playing hard. We would like to win, keep our confidence up and keep our momentum," Carlson said. "We could take a lot of good things out of the game, but at the end of the day, two points would've been nice."
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