- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Every day, the Washington Capitals see the standings board in the players’ lounge and understand their situation. They see the Buffalo Sabres tied with 84 points and just below them thanks to a tiebreaker and know well that Tuesday night’s matchup at Verizon Center is critical.

Coach Dale Hunter likened it to a “Game 7 of a series,” and the stakes are high, but players understand the season doesn’t actually end if the Caps don’t beat the Sabres this time.

“Every one means a lot,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “There’ll be a tomorrow after it, but it’s a game we want to have, and it’s a game that I think every guy in our room is looking forward to playing.”

This is how it should be with six games left in the regular season: two teams on the edge of the playoff race going head-to-head in a game that could decide who’s golfing by the second week of April.

But it might not be armageddon either way. Knuble indicated that it certainly is the biggest game of the season, since the last one. Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, who is 18-3-5 with a 1.83 goals-against average and .938 save percentage since Jan. 24, feels the same way.

“It’s just one big hockey game at this point. We got to win. We’ve had some challenges in the last few months. This is just another one,” Miller said. “I think that’s how I’m approaching it. I hope that’s how some of the other guys are approaching it because we really shouldn’t do anything different.”

Hunter has been saying for six weeks that the Capitals are in the midst of “playoff hockey.” That means more intensity in the locker room than in years past, when Washington cruised into the postseason.

But just like Miller and the Sabres, that shouldn’t change anything from the Caps’ perspective, either.

“I just play every single game like it’s the exact same game. It doesn’t really matter if its supposed to be like a Game 7 or if it’s the first game of the season,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Obviously, getting the two points is very, very important for us. But playing some good hockey is what we’ve got to stick with.”

Good hockey as in what they did Sunday to the Minnesota Wild in a 3-0 victory, not the kind of sorry excuse for hockey they put together in two losses at Buffalo in the first half of the season.

But both teams have come a long way since then. The Sabres woke up in last place in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 18 and were sellers at the trade deadline. Buffalo is 9-2-2 in March and is more than just a token contender to make the playoffs.

“They’ve been playing really, really well. That’s a good hockey team,” Capitals defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “They’re playing like the hockey team that we expected them to be all year.”

Expect it to feel truly like playoff hockey, just as in games March 16 and last Friday against Winnipeg did, when the Caps knew they could put the Jets away but failed to do so.

This isn’t the same kind of opportunity, and the Capitals‘ season isn’t necessarily on the line. Not only is the division lead within reach, but the seventh seed is, too. The Southeast-leading Florida Panthers have lost three in a row and lead Washington by just three points, and the Ottawa Senators were just two points up entering Monday.

Even with several avenues to a playoff spot, this game has a lot riding on it.

“We’re playing a pretty tough team that’s playing really well, they’ve got four wins in a row, and we feel that this is going to be a very big determination whether we’re going to make the playoffs,” right wing Troy Brouwer said.

But don’t expect the value of this game to be a major topic of conversation within the locker room.

“It doesn’t need to be stated,” defenseman Mike Green said. “It’s evident.”

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