This was it: the Washington Capitals' chance to make good on one game in hand and trim the deficits they were facing in the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference playoff race.
Two-goal lead, gone. Third-period magic, wasted by a 4-3 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center on Tuesday night.
"This was our game from the beginning," center Mathieu Perreault said. "That was our game, and we didn't finish it off. This might be a point that's going to hurt us at the end. All the points we can get right now, we've got to get them."
The Capitals managed to salvage one point with Brooks Laich's gorgeous give-and-go goal with 2:52 left in the game. That prevented what could have been a doomsday scenario: A third straight loss on what should have been a momentum-building homestand.
Instead, they still had the gut-punch feeling of leaving a valuable point on the board against the division's last-place Hurricanes. Forget about playing well for stretches of a second straight game.
"This time of year, you can't judge yourself by your intentions, it's by your results," Laich said. "It's a game we had to have. It's tough to take right now."
With a 2-0 lead early in the second period, the Capitals were feeling good. They had won 16 of the 20 games they scored first in under coach Dale Hunter and were riding plenty of momentum. Then something happened. Troy Brouwer admitted losing Jiri Tlusty on Carolina's first goal, and Mike Green was late to pick up Chad LaRose on the second.
"We were doing it earlier in the season where we just kind of get a mental lapse for a few minutes and we get scored on in bunches," Brouwer said.
This time, two goals in 3:39, but the dagger came early in the third period when Dennis Wideman whiffed on an attempt to keep the puck in the offensive zone, paving the way for a Brandon Sutter breakaway goal.
"That was just a bad read," a sullen Wideman said. "Those are the plays that cost you playoff series, that don't let you get into the playoffs. Just a bad play."
Those are the kinds of mistakes that have been plaguing Washington lately, and another Wideman error, this time being on the wrong side of the puck in overtime, led to the Hurricanes' game-winner.
It wasn't the worst-case scenario, which would have been a loss in regulation and yet another completely blown opportunity, but points are precious for a team two out of a playoff spot.
"I liked the way we played at the beginning; we were able to get up. But we've got to be able to hold leads," Brouwer said. "A couple missed assignments, me being one of them. It's good that we were able to battle back and get a point. But again, a point just isn't good enough right now."
The lost point hurts considering a couple of favorable results around the Eastern Conference for teams trailing the Capitals: Tampa Bay losing to Ottawa and Toronto losing to Boston. The Capitals know they need to keep piling up points to prevent those teams from catching them, and, obviously, to try to slip into at least the eighth spot.
So whereas maybe earlier in the season the mood might've been lighter thanks to a point stolen in the final minutes, Washington's room was full of disappointment.
"We're in a playoff hunt right now; we're trying to get into the playoffs, so we need that two points," Perreault said. "It's really hard. I thought we played another good game, but we can't find ways to get two points every night. This is not good enough."
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