The Capitals are team that has made a living off strong pushes late and they might need their best one yet if they are going to salvage fading Stanley Cup playoff hopes.
After Tuesday night’s 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington enters the final 15 games of its schedule in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division. The Caps are three points out of a playoff spot and have one or two fewer games than all of its rivals to make up the difference.
“You can’t get down this time of the season,” forward Eric Fehr said this week. “You’ve got to stay positive and keep moving forward.”
That’s easier said than done.
Washington probably deserved to win on Monday night against the Penguins at Verizon Center. But it couldn’t find a way to win despite a 33-20 shots advantage in a 3-2 setback. Then came Tuesday’s loss in the rematch, a similarly frustrating effort. The Caps managed 32 shots and goalie Jaroslav Halak played well enough to give his team a chance.
But in the end it wasn’t enough and that has left them with no margin for error.
Shortly after returning from the NHL’s Olympic break, forward Brooks Laich said his team needed to reach 92 points to qualify for the postseason. That’s looking like an accurate assessment, especially since Washington is unlikely to win a tiebreaker with anyone. Every other playoff contender has at least three more regulation or overtime wins than the Caps.
To get to 92 points now, they would need a 10-3-2 finish to garner the necessary 22 points. But that’s actually been the norm in recent seasons. In the last six years, Washington has managed 22 points or better five times in its last 15 games. The only season it didn’t hit that total was 2011-12 when it still went 9-4-2 for 20 points.
The problem? The schedule. The Caps have a difficult three-game stretch in California next week against Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose – three of the NHL’s eight best teams.
Later, they have a return date at home with the Kings, Boston, the top team in the Eastern Conference, and Chicago, the defending Stanley Cup champion. Finding a way to reach 22 points against that slate is difficult.
And so, in a radio interview with 106.7 – The Fan on Wednesday morning, Laich said his team needed to win home games this weekend against imploding Vancouver and Toronto, which with 78 points is set to reach the postseason for the second year in a row.
Laich even said the Caps might need to run the table at Verizon Center with seven home games remaining.
“Every time when we don’t win the game it’s put back in the standings,” winger Alex Ovechkin said after the first loss to the Penguins this week. “We now in desperate position and we going to fight through it.”
They’ve been in a similar position before, though not quite as dire. In 2011, the Caps had 72 points and were tied for the final playoff spot with 15 games left. A 9-4-2 stretch run allowed them to sneak into the playoffs with 92 points as the No. 7 seed. They upset Boston in the first round that season and lost to the New York Rangers in seven games in the second round.
Last season, Washington shook off a rough start under first-year coach Adam Oates to finish 12-1-2 for 26 points over the last 15 games, its best stretch yet. But playing well isn’t good enough anymore. The Caps could have won their two games against the Penguins this week. They didn’t.
With just 15 games left, results are all that matter.
“It’s very tough because guys played a good game, probably one of our better games we’ve played against that team,” said Oates after Monday’s loss. “To come out on the short end of the stick is difficult.”