The Washington Capitals have relied upon a late-season surge to solidify their postseason positioning in recent years, including winning five of their last seven games in 2011 to sneak into the playoffs and an 11-1-1 performance last April to claim the Southeast Division title.
Yet if anything is to be taken out of a 5-0 loss to the Dallas Stars at Verizon Center on Tuesday, it's that a similar winning streak — and a little bit of luck — will be necessary if the Capitals hope to qualify for the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season.
"If somehow we make the playoffs playing like this, who are we kidding?" coach Adam Oates said Tuesday. "We have to figure out a way to get better."
Only three other teams — the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins — have a longer active postseason streak than Washington, which sat two points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets, and in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, following the conclusion of Tuesday's games.
Their next game will be on the road Friday against the New Jersey Devils, who are one point behind the Capitals in the standings following a shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday.
Then, after visiting the hapless New York Islanders on Saturday, Washington will finish its season with four games, including one each against the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning — three of the nine best teams in the league, according to the standings.
"Maybe going on the road will help, playing some games there, because it's a different audience," Oates said. "We've got two days to try to regroup and win some games. That's all. That's all we can do. We talk all the time, since day one — you've got to be a pro. You know, there's no Knute Rockne speech. It's the guys in there, the 20 guys that play every night. It's us that — you've got to play, and you've got to try to get better every day. That's all it is."
Washington's performance on Tuesday night sharply contrasted with that of the Stars, who likewise entered the game one point out of the final wild card playoff spot.
They fractured the Capitals' first power play with a pair of breakaway opportunities, drawing a penalty on the second to end it. They scored their second goal on a two-line pass, then added a third 34 seconds later, taking advantage of a desire by defenseman John Erskine and fourth-line center Chris Brown to scuffle with winger Alex Chiasson just in front of the crease rather than tend to the loose puck in it.
And, with the game well out of reach 14:50 into the third period, winger Ryan Garbett gracefully skated by Mike Green on a shorthanded breakaway opportunity and lifted the puck past Braden Holtby for the fifth goal.
The loss provided the Capitals with their greatest margin of defeat this season, and not since March 2, 2012 had they been shut out 5-0 at home.
"It's hard to say something right now because we're in desperate position," said Alex Ovechkin, who leads the league with 48 goals but has not scored at even strength since Feb. 27, a span of 16 games. "We understand we need the points, and you know, but we don't get the points, and we make easiest mistakes. We turn puck over in our zone, neutral zone, and cost us the game, you know? It's all about us. It's all about players. We didn't respond, and I don't know what to say."
Defenseman John Carlson said after the game that he believed the Capitals' three-game California road trip, which included victories over the Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks and an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings, would have been the start of a similar spring playoff run.
Instead, the Capitals returned home, squandered a 2-0 lead on the Kings in an eventual 5-4 shootout loss, were never in a 4-2 loss to the Bruins and struggled in a 4-3 shootout road loss to the Nashville Predators on Sunday.
"It can't be justified," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It's terrible. We're making bad pinches, we're not covering for each other and we haven't been playing for one another. It's like we expect the next guy to make the play. It's been kind of off and on like that for a lot of the season, and we've got away with it at times. It clearly hasn't worked the last little bit, and you pay for it in the end."
For the first time in nearly a decade, the end may come sooner than expected.
"I thought we were gonna get into [a winning streak] there with our stretch out west," Holtby said, "but the last three games we played, they're just not even close or good enough to get into the playoffs — or do anything in the playoffs, for that matter."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.