Adam Oates doesn’t need his Washington Capitals players to read the newspaper to see where they’re at in the standings. They’re plastered on boards around the practice facility, and the coach wants his players to be keenly aware of what’s going on.
“It’s part of your job,” Oates said. “We’re not happy about it. We maybe don’t talk about it as much as we should. But we all know about it.”
Ten points back of the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes after Tuesday night’s 4-0 loss to Carolina, the Caps are perilously close to falling out of the race altogether.
Joe Corvo could sense a lack of confidence in an opponent on a losing streak.
“They’re struggling a little bit,” the Hurricanes defenseman said. “As a team that’s on a roll and playing well, you’ve got to smell blood.”
The Hurricanes smell blood and Thursday night have the chance to all but bury the Caps in the Southeast when the teams meet again in Raleigh, N.C. It’s hard to envision Washington overcoming a 12-point deficit with 22 games to play.
“Obviously, when you’re at the top of the division, there’s going to be important games where teams are looking at you to gain some ground,” Carolina captain Eric Staal said. “Especially that we won the game here [Tuesday], it’s big. We want to make sure we follow that momentum up and really shut the door.”
Caps players can feel the door closing. They’re fourth in the division and 14th in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s not where you want to be, obviously,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “You look at the standings and you see yourself down there, that’s the worst feeling you can have.”
Actually, Chimera clarified, the worst feeling is sitting at home in late spring while other teams are in the playoffs. This core isn’t used to that feeling. The Caps haven’t missed the playoffs since 2007, and until last season owned the Southeast Division.
It’s very different this year. The Tampa Bay Lightning cooled off after their start, but the Hurricanes are cruising along, even after losing starting goaltender Cam Ward to a knee injury.
But coach Kirk Muller won’t think big picture, like how many points it will take to make the playoffs or how quickly his Hurricanes can put the Caps away.
“You just can’t take anything for granted,” Muller said. “What we’ve done a really good job [of] is staying focused. We’ll … get back at it Thursday and it happens that Washington will be our opponent again, and we’ve got to have the same mindset that every game you’ve got to go out and earn it.”
That’s what Carolina was able to do Tuesday night at Verizon Center, earning two points at a time when the Caps need them desperately. Staal called it a “big week” based on what he and his teammates could accomplish.
“We knew these two games were going to be pretty big games for us,” Hurricanes center Riley Nash said. “Thursday they’re going to be really hungry again. They’re obviously fighting for every point they can get.”
Going into Thursday on a three-game losing streak, the Caps aren’t just fighting; they’re in desperation mode. Anytime they don’t pick up points, the task of reaching the playoffs becomes more daunting.
“We know how important this game is,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We’re not walking through just thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just another game.’ We know the importance of every single game we’re playing.”
Facing first-place Carolina again adds another layer. The goal for the Caps is to get into the top eight in the Eastern Conference, but players and Oates have talked about possibly needing to win the division to make it.
That would be mighty hard to do if they lose another head-to-head matchup.
“We have to emphasize it as a must-win,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “They’re the team we’re trying to catch in our division here, so we can’t drop any more points, especially against these guys.”
That’s a lot riding on Game 25 of a 48-game regular season. But given where the Caps are in the standings, Oates welcomes the desperation that being so far out of the playoff picture brings for his players.
“I would hope that they are feeling the pressure because I would hope that they do know the standings,” he said.
It’s impossible at this point not to know the situation. It’s getting late very early around the Caps.
“To be honest with you, yeah, I look at the standings. Twenty-three games left, we just have to win more games,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s not over yet, it’s just the middle of the year. But [this] game is very important for us, and probably next week all this road trips is gonna be very important for us. We have to take many as points as we can.”