Jack Hillen missed all but eight games this season, but the veteran defensemen earlier this week made it perfectly clear that taking positives out of a loss wasn’t good enough anymore.
“We dug ourselves a big hole to start the season, and we’re not taking anything away from this game except that we didn’t get any points,” Hillen said after the Washington Capitals lost to the New York Islanders. “We need to get points in games now. We want to make the playoffs. The goal is to make the playoffs. We didn’t get points.”
Not getting points against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins of the world can be understandable; those teams are the class of the Eastern Conference. Failing to do so against the Islanders is hard to swallow, just as it would be unacceptable for the Caps not to pick up points this weekend at the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers.
“We talked about it when we faced the Islanders: The teams that were coming up in the next four games were teams that we want to put behind us on not look back,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We’ve got Buffalo and we want to put them behind us, we’ve got Philly and we want to put them behind us and then we’ve got Carolina, we want to catch them and put them behind us. You always want to keep putting teams behind you and keep an eye on the teams above you.”
The Caps are looking up at 10 teams in the East, including Tuesday’s opponent, the Hurricanes. But the Sabres and Flyers are below Washington in the standings.
That means the weekend becomes a matter of taking care of business. To coach Adam Oates, every game is an important one the Caps need to win, no matter the opponent.
“You’re on auto-pilot,” he said. “You go to a new city and it’s kind of that way every year in March where you’re just playing, and every game as soon as you get out there in warm-up it’s another big game.”
The Caps go into Saturday four points back of the East’s final playoff spot with 15 games to play. That’s 15 of what Laich calls “opportunities.” In reality, there’s plenty of pressure to win roughly 10 of them to make the playoffs.
That urgency is why Oates isn’t concerned about which opponents are up next on the schedule.
“Hopefully you’re getting up for the game because we need to win,” he said. “But all-in-all every game right now is, there’s [only] so many left that you should not have a problem getting up for them.”
There are few chances for the Caps to give away points. A 2-8-1 start paved the way for this.
But Laich doesn’t think the slow start forces he and his teammates to prove they belong as a playoff contender.
“You have to prove yourself every day. That doesn’t ever change,” he said. “This year, maybe more than eve,r it doesn’t really matter where you end up in the shortened season. I think the only thing that matters, and we’ve learned this in the past, is peaking at the right time.”