RALEIGH, N.C. — Talk, talk, talk. What the Washington Capitals have said, over and over, is that every game is important right now. Every point means something.
And as much as players want to avoid the standings and focus, Troy Brouwer and others pointed out that self-awareness is essential this time of year. It might only be February, but scoreboard-watching time is here in ear-nest.
Watching the out-of-town scores has been a favorable endeavor for the Caps, as two teams they're chasing, the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, have struggled. And that's what makes this rough road trip even rougher.
"We keep getting breaks, and other teams are helping us," right wing Mike Knuble said after an embarrassing 5-0 loss Monday to the Eastern Conference cellar-dwelling Carolina Hurricanes. "You watch the standings, and it's like nobody wants it. And that's what's frustrating. Because it's right there for us, and it's in our control, and somebody's got to take it."
It's a tight race, with Washington always seemingly one big victory away from gaining confidence and a playoff spot. Yet the Capitals haven't managed to win consecutive games in more than a month.
"There are chances, but with [the] effort like we have [Monday], we have no chance no matter who we play or what the standings say," goaltender Tomas Vokoun said. "Just a terrible game. It's hard to explain. It was just a bad game."
The defeat at Carolina was tough to take because of two early goals and the obviously attainable points at stake.
"We can't let teams like that get a good start on us, especially when we need these points. They're so crucial," Brouwer said. "Florida lost [Sunday], we were looking good, we were excited about today and then we come out and just flat. Just terrible."
The Caps now will look to prevent a three-game losing skid Wednesday night at Ottawa.
According to coach Dale Hunter, the Caps will have left wing Alex Ovechkin in the lineup againstt the Senators. The captain played just 15:43 at Carolina, missed six minutes of the second period and could be seen limping around the locker room Monday night.
Ovechkin was given off Tuesday's practice with what was called a "maintenance day."
"He had an equipment problem, and we just give him a maintenance day today, so he should be good tomorrow," Hunter said Tuesday.
The Caps certainly could use their leading scorer in what is virtually a must-win game game, especially with the Feb. 27 trade deadline approaching. A Senators victory would put them nine points head of Washington for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, and a Caps loss would put them in quicksand in their push to make the playoffs.
Regardless of the Panthers' situation, the Caps' inability to excel in important games is an issue.
"We're not in a playoff spot. Of course there's concern," forward Jeff Halpern said. "We still have confidence, but of course there's concern."
Knuble in handicapping the race also pointed out that it's not just about moving up but trying not to get passed.
"The thing is you keep hovering around and waiting, you're inviting 11 and 10 to come up and get you, too," he said. "Winnipeg's in the mix now. I don't even know, the Islanders are even coming up there."
One problem: The Caps are in 10th and looking up, thanks to the Jets' recent surge. But Knuble isn't losing hope.
"I still feel like we're the group that can do it," he said. "And we have the guys that can do it. It's just not going right there."
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