The math is against the Capitals now.
Washington could win its final four games of the regular season and still miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2007. That's a position no team wants to be in at the end of a long year. It's one the Caps aren't used to. There is no getting around it now as they prepare for a road trip to play the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night.
"I've been, unfortunately, doing all the number crunching at home," defenseman Karl Alzner said.
Even if Washington manages wins in its final four games over St. Louis, Carolina, Chicago and Tampa Bay – no easy feat – it still needs Columbus to go 1-2-1 or worse in its final four games and New Jersey to do no better than 3-1. That would put the Caps in with 91 points. But they win no tiebreakers and have no margin for error left.
"You have to leave a lot of your chances to other teams and other organizations for things to go right," Washington forward Troy Brouwer said. "It's a little gloomy in here, but guys are preparing for St. Louis knowing that we have to win out the rest of the season otherwise we're not even gonna give ourselves an opportunity to make the playoffs."
That first step won't be easy. While Columbus plays host to Phoenix on Tuesday, the Caps see a Blues team that has not lost three games in a row all season. St. Louis did have a rough weekend with back-to-back losses to Chicago and Colorado. And Washington won the first meeting 4-1 at Verizon Center on Nov. 17.
But the Blues (52-19-7, 111 points) have the NHL's second-most points, tops in the Western Conference, and have only lost 11 times at home in 39 games.
"They're a very good hockey team," Caps coach Adam Oates said. "They've lost two in a row, they've lost a few. I've watched them play. They have their strengths, they have some weaknesses. There's no reason that if we go in prepared to play we can't win the game."
Oates would not commit to Jaroslav Halak in goal, though he clearly wants to play after being dealt by St. Louis to Buffalo just before the trade deadline and then flipped again to Washington days later.
Defenseman Mike Green (undisclosed injury) will not make the trip at all, according to Oates. Neither will defensemen Patrick Wey or Jack Hillen, who have suspected concussions. That opens the door to a return to the lineup for rookie Connor Carrick, who has been a healthy scratch every game since March 16.
But this isn't the spot Washington expected to be in after qualifying for the postseason each of the last six seasons. The Caps could be eliminated as soon as Tuesday with a loss to the Blues, a regulation win by Columbus and a point by Detroit, which holds the No. 7 seed currently. The web sitesportsclubstat.com gives Washington a 1.7 percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs. Even if it wins all four remaining games, those odds climb to just 36 percent.
And now all the missed opportunities, including a blown 4-2 lead in the third period against Metropolitan Division rival Philadelphia on March 2 and an ensuing 6-4 loss to the Flyers three days later on March 5, seem even bigger.
"The [Philadelphia] home-and-home series is probably the defining moment of the season whether we were going to be in the playoffs or not," Brouwer said. "You always look back and you find that turning point of the season where if things would have gone your way - like they did last year in Winnipeg - then you're in the playoffs, you're rolling...But we blew the two-goal lead in the one game and lost the other one."
Players pointed to different chances. Alzner remembered two games at Columbus in January where the Caps were outscored 10-2. There was a 3-2 loss to Anaheim in December at home where a late goal kept them from gaining any points and a blown 3-1 lead in Phoenix in November with just 3:26 left that led to a shootout loss. There are plenty of others, too, that loom large as the season drifts to a frustrating close.
"You think about every one that got away," Oates said. "At the beginning of the year, you're telling them all the time 'Boys, these points are valuable down the stretch.' And now it's more magnified."
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