- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Coach Dale Hunter billed it as not just a playoff game, but like a “Game 7” of a playoff series. It’s a mantra that begs for play as if there’s no tomorrow.

The Washington Capitals will have a tomorrow to continue their playoff push, but they’ll head into the final five games of the season trying to dig out of a hole after an embarrassing 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night at Verizon Center.

“It’s a tough loss, but it’s not a devastating one,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We reduce ourselves to fighting every day, you don’t look any further than that. You live to fight one more day, and you make the most of your chances. All we can do is win our hockey games.”

Winning hockey games is something the Caps better do plenty of during the final stretch after squandering this opportunity. They fell to ninth place in the Eastern Conference, two points back of Buffalo and now five points back of the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers, who have played one fewer game.

But this hyped affair — one that Karl Alzner called “officially the biggest game of the year for us” — was a debacle from start to finish. 

Washington went down 2-0 in the first period, certainly not responding like everything was on the line. It also didn’t help that Sabres goalie Ryan Miller stifled, making 44 saves.

“I’m not going to lie. There was a lot at stake, and I thought our preparation was really good for the game,” Buffalo captain Jason Pominville said. “We got off to a really good start and took their will away.”

The Caps looked like a team lacking in will, especially in a game they put such paramount importance on. This was the season, for all intents and purposes, and in that spot Hunter turned to the 22-year-old Braden Holtby for the start in goal.

And Holtby looked like every bit of the rookie goaltender he is, turning the puck over in brutal fashion to lead to the Sabres‘ first goal. Trying to pass it to Jeff Schultz, the puck went right to a Buffalo attacker.

“Well, it happens. When you play the puck that’s what happens,” Hunter said. “Every goaltender has did it. It’s one of those plays that he’d want back.”

It cost dearly and allowed the many Buffalo fans in attendance to take over. Though Holtby didn’t cave, he still allowed another Buffalo goal on a scramble late in the first, and one on a rebound early in the second. It spelled the end of Holtby’s night after three goals on 18 shots and possibly his run as the cause of the goaltending controversy in Washington.

But this game of mistakes wasn’t all about Holtby. Blunders in clearing the crease hurt, as did Alex Ovechkin’s muffed play at the point on the power play that directly led to the Sabres‘ fourth goal. At the time, the Caps had a golden opportunity to make it a one-goal game, while Buffalo was down to four healthy defensemen. Instead, Pominville beat Michal Neuvirth to again quell any momentum turn.

“I thought we were starting to feel pretty good about ourselves,” Alzner said. “The crowd was feeling pretty good, I think. And that was a real killer.”

The final killer didn’t come until 45 minutes after the Caps’ latest torment ended, when the Panthers won in a shootout to increase their division lead.

Now, players are talking about the need to perhaps win four of the final five games. If calling Tuesday a “Game 7” was pressure, the stakes will be ratcheted up to new levels for the final couple of weeks.

“We’re going to have to be a desperate hockey team, every single second of every game,” Alzner said. “You see us get desperate in the third period a lot this year. It’s going to start right from the drop of the puck.”

Why that didn’t happen Tuesday night with so much on the line is a mystery, and one the Capitals hope they can solve in order to keep their playoff aspirations alive.

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