- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2012

If the Washington Capitals‘ goal is just to make the playoffs, a departure from lofty preseason expectations, the past couple games will get them there. Four points in two shootout victories put them in an excellent position, and they could clinch a spot as early as Tuesday.

But those wins, and three of the past five games total, have featured the Capitals blowing a two-goal lead. It’s a frightening precedent to set, given that it could lead to an early playoff exit if the trend continues against stronger opponents.

“We’ve got to find ways to make sure that we’re holding those leads,” right wing Troy Brouwer said after Saturday’s 3-2 shootout victory over the lowly Montreal Canadiens. “Because it’s against a team that’s not in the playoffs, it doesn’t really matter if you give them a point; all that really matters at the end of the day is you get your two points.”

It’s a difficult balance. The Capitals are surviving and advancing, building a cushion ahead of the Buffalo Sabres and turning up the heat on the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers. They have a tight grip on the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, two points up on Buffalo, and trail Florida by just three points with three games left.

Even if it’s madness, the method is working.

“It doesn’t matter. We just want the wins. We’re building towards making the playoffs,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “At this point, this is our team, this is how we play, regardless if it’s 5-0 wins or losing 2-0 leads. It’s a team that we’re hopefully going to win everything with, and it might be like this right ‘til the end.”

That might cause coach Dale Hunter’s hair to get a little more gray. He joked that it’s nice to be able to get leads in the first place, but he acknowledged his team is sitting back too much and not pressing for bigger advantages.

Hunter said the root of the problem is turnovers, something that needs to be fixed before the playoffs.

“It’s always decisions with the puck,” Hunter said. “You have to make plays if it’s there, but it’s decisions. There’s good ones and bad ones, and if you turn the puck over too much, it’s going to weigh in the back of your head.”

Playing like that, jumping out to a lead Saturday on the emotional high of center Nicklas Backstrom’s return to the lineup after missing 40 games with a concussion and then gagging away the lead, weighs on players, too.

Center Brooks Laich and defenseman Dennis Wideman pointed to a goal surrendered in the final minute of the first period against Montreal as one of the major issues. Giving up those kind of momentum-turning goals has been a troubling pattern for most of the season.

“Last minutes are big minutes in hockey games,” Laich said. “If we don’t give up that goal, we’re really still in charge. If they get that goal, now they’re thinking, ‘We’re in a hockey game.’ If you get the second one, the most important thing is getting the third goal.”

Contrary to left wing Matt Hendricks’ statement recently, a three-goal lead is not the hardest lead in hockey. The Capitals only blew a three-goal advantage once this season, and they haven’t lost in regulation when leading after two periods.

But for now, there’s some belief that a win’s a win because it’s another step toward ensuring the season lasts beyond this week.

“We’ll take it right now, what we have. We take these two points,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s huge right now.”