Alex Ovechkin knew the situation. The captain saw the Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg Jets were losing and realized the opportunity the Washington Capitals had in front of them Sunday night.
“It’s kind of situation where you look at yourself and you look at different team in division, so it’s kind of situation where you have to do everything we can game-by-game,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes you not ready, but today I think was the kind of day everybody was in.”
The Caps were into the game right away and were able to pick up two more essential points by beating the Buffalo Sabres 5-3 on Sunday night at Verizon Center. They’re six points back of the final playoff position and seven back of the Jets with 20 games left.
“You look at the standings right now and it’s still close, top to bottom, of that playoff race,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “You look at Buffalo and they’re in the same position we are. To get those points, it’s huge, but right now, we’ll treat every game like a playoff game. We have to win every one, or else we’re done.”
It’s not quite do-or-die territory, but with the next four on the road and the scuffling Sabres in town, a loss Sunday night would’ve been damaging to long-term playoff hopes and the Caps’ psyche. As it was, this is just the second victory in the past six games.
“We need to get back in the win column for sure, and get us off to a good start and have a good feeling going into Pittsburgh where they’re playing really good right now,” said left wing Jason Chimera, who broke his 27-game goal drought to start the season. “It’s a big, big win for us.”
It was a win the Caps needed badly. They improved to 5-0 against the bottom-feeders in the Eastern Conference, the Sabres and Florida Panthers, while they’re just 7-15-1 against everyone else. Only two games remain against those opponents.
So it’s incumbent on the Caps to take care of business in situations like this. They didn’t waste any time, as Ovechkin scored just 19 seconds in. It was the first time in four games Washington scored first.
“I think it’s a different game when you start with the lead,” center Mike Ribeiro said. “I think the last three or four games the first 10 minutes it’s 2-0 for the other team, and it’s hard to stick with your system and play from behind. I think to score that first goal gives you a chance to play with the lead, play smarter after that. You don’t have to cheat offensively; you can play your game plan and keep following it.”
That game plan involved pressing the Sabres into difficult situations. The Caps were able to brush off agitator Steve Ott’s antics and take advantage of a shaky performance by goaltender Ryan Miller, who allowed five goals on 25 shots.
“I think we pressed the puck pretty well,” Ribeiro said. “We were quick on the puck, we were quick to make them react a little bit faster than they might like to and create turnovers and bobble pucks there. I think our intensity was better. I think we pressed the puck a lot better and made them throw the puck to places that they don’t want to.”
As desperate as the Caps were, they didn’t necessarily play like it, in a good way. They kept crucial mistakes to a minimum and survived three penalty kills, including a late one with a 4-3 lead that could have proved disastrous.
But center Mathieu Perreault scored 13 seconds after the Sabres‘ power play expired, and the Caps were able to breath easy and get to 25 points in their 28th game. They’re in a virtual tie with the Tampa Bay Lightning
“It’s pretty much must-win now till the end of the year,” Perreault said. “We know we got to start getting some wins if we want to get in the playoffs.”
The playoffs are still a daunting task, though not impossible if the Caps are able to go on a run.