After a stellar performance against the Florida Panthers, the Washington Capitals have pledged to continue their battle to make the playoffs. Thursday night against the Winnipeg Jets, however, was a microcosm of this season’s struggle to stay in playoff positioning and keeping control of games. “You finally take a little bit of a breath that you finally scored…But it isn’t over until it’s over. That’s proof tonight,” said Karl Alzner after the Caps’ flukey 3-2 shootout loss against the Jets.
Tuesday’s game for the Capitals was crucial in that if Washington lost, they would fall further in the standings. Knowing the importance of winning, the Caps answered the call and put on a dominant performance against the Florida Panthers, winning, 4-0. The Caps regained first place in the Southeast by a point as a result, but the game against the Jets was just as important for the Caps to stay there.
The loss put the Caps right back outside of the playoff picture, as the Panthers did their job in defeating the L.A. Kings, 3-1, to overtake the lead again in the Southeast. The Ottawa Senators provided no help on the bottom-end of the playoff race, beating the Nashville Predators, 4-3, holding on to the eighth seed. This just shows the Capitals will need all the help they can get from outside teams, but it’s primarily on them to get the job done.
The danger here is that Washington plays down to their opponents — especially those from within their own division. Many of those games were close-call situations, and more recently, those moments where the Capitals get stuck in lackadaisical hockey and play down have resulted missing out on two points they could have had. Prime example: the last few minutes of the Caps/Jets game. Thursday’s game against Winnipeg was one that was marred by flukes and things out of their control, but there are other things the Caps could have done to keep matters in their own hands.
After the Caps gave up a 6-on-3 power play goal once Ondrej Pavelec was pulled late in the game, Dustin Byfuglien’s dump-in found its way in the back of the net 12 seconds later behind an otherwise solid Tomas Vokoun, tying the game at two and sending the match to overtime. While it was a strange and uncontrollable set of occurrences, the Caps still cost themselves a much-needed two-points-to-none performance.
“Seemed like towards the end of the game we got up those two goals and guys started sitting back, seemed to be a little bit weaker on pucks,” said Alzner about the first goal. “We got jammed up in our own zone and take [Hamrlik's] penalty because of it.”
Essentially, if the first goal isn’t scored, then the second goal doesn’t hurt as much. Also, the Caps would have remained in first place, stretching their lead over Winnipeg to five points and earning a two-point lead over the Panthers. As quickly as it happened, the Capitals have now seen what happens when they let their guard down against a team desperate to make a playoff run. Whether the Jets do make the playoffs is not the question, but they sure will try to make it in.
Bubble teams, like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators or any team within reach of the Southeast division lead, will be doing their best down the stretch, giving every other team on the edge a hard time. Washington will need ultimate control in each game from now on because the only way a team out of the Southeast is making the playoffs is by winning the division. However, with the off-chance they can make it in through the lower seeds, points will be needed even more, and the Jets’ proximity to the Caps in the standings makes that quest for points and keeping opponents from even one point more important.
The Caps know what’s on the line — all audiences are waiting for now is to see it translate on the ice.