Nicklas Backstrom admitted to being a “little bit” nervous last week in the moments before he scored the Capitals’ eventual game-winner in a shootout over the Pittsburgh Penguins. The moment didn’t just put the Capitals center in a high-pressure situation for the first time since he returned from hip surgery. But his team badly needed a win and it was on Backstrom to deliver.
Backstrom did exactly that — but, as has been the case for the Capitals over the last month, Washington was unable to generate much-needed momentum from the victory.
Sunday’s 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs marked the latest instance of the Capitals’ inability to string together back-to-back wins. Washington hasn’t produced consecutive victories in more than a month — when the team beat the New York Rangers on Dec. 27 and the Winnipeg Jets on Dec. 23.
As a result, the Capitals approach the bye week and All-Star break in a position they haven’t been for a long time — they’re genuinely having to fight to make the playoffs. With only one game left before the 10-day pause, Washington (26-20-6, 58 points) is clinging to the top wild card spot with four teams on its heels.
“If you’re going to make the playoffs … you have to put a couple wins together,” Backstrom told reporters after losing to Toronto. “Winning streaks, that’s what we need. It’s too tight in the standings and ‘teams are catching up.”
The Capitals haven’t been in danger of missing the playoffs since the last time they did so in 2013-14. That year, Washington went just 38-30-14 — a disappointing season that caused owner Ted Leonsis to fire coach Adam Oates and let general manager George McPhee’s contract expire. Since then, the Capitals have made the postseason comfortably. Even last year, when Washington earned the eighth seed, the Capitals were 16 points in the standings ahead of the next-closest team.
This year has been different. Despite another standout season from captain and lone Capitals All-Star Alex Ovechkin, Washington has been plagued by injuries and hasn’t received consistent production from its aging core. The Capitals appeared headed for a dramatic turnaround in December — going 11-2-2 — but have stalled out in January. That happened even after the returns of Backstrom and Wilson (ACL), though the latter is out again after suffering a lower-body injury last week.
“It’s not something that we talk about every day, but it’s something that it’s in the back of guys’ minds: A lot of guys in here haven’t not made (the) playoffs in quite a while,” winger T.J. Oshie said. “That’s not a trend we would like to start.”
To Oshie’s point, the Capitals are a team composed of veterans with plenty of playoff experience. Beyond the players who have been part of Washington’s core, newcomers such as goalie Darcy Kuemper and winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel arrived fresh off a Stanley Cup run with the Colorado Avalanche.
Not counting those who were stuck in the minors, the Capitals only have three players on their current 23-man roster who missed the playoffs last season: center Dylan Strome, defenseman Erik Gustafsson and forward Sonny Milano. Those three, however, have all made the tournament at least once in their careers.
To make the playoffs this year, the Capitals will have to hold off teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins (57 points, in the second wild-card spot) and Buffalo Sabres (56 points, trailing Washington and Pittsburgh) — though those two franchises have played three fewer games than Washington.
The New York Islanders (55 points), Florida Panthers (54 points) and Philadelphia Flyers (51) also aren’t far behind. There’s plenty of time to make a run, too as most teams have 30 or so games remaining.
The margin for error is small.
“The standings are getting tight this time of year,” forward Conor Sheary said, “and you want to keep climbing as much as you can.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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