A summer of roster additions, three weeks of training camp and a six-month slog through the NHL's endless regular season boils down to six games for the Capitals.
It's not a team used to this position. Washington has cruised into the Stanley Cup playoffs each of the last three years but now finds itself with a tenuous grip on the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth entering Tuesday's showdown with the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center.
Both teams have six games remaining. Both have an outside shot at reaching the postseason via other avenues. Either could catch No. 7 Ottawa, and the Caps (38-30-8, 84 points) still harbor slim hopes of catching Florida for the Southeast Division title and the automatic No. 3 seed. But the loser of Tuesday's contest will face diminished chances and no longer control its own destiny. Buffalo (37-29-10, 84 points) has beaten Washington twice this season. A 5-1 loss there on Nov. 26 finally cost then-coach Bruce Boudreau his job.
|Sabres at Capitals|
|When » Tuesday, 7 p.m.|
|Where » Verizon Center|
|TV » CSN|
Only seven players remain from the 2007-08 Caps squad that won 11 of its final 12 games to sneak into the postseason on the final day. That season finale against the Panthers on April 5, 2008, was a win-or-go-home scenario. Washington hasn't played a truly meaningful regular-season game since then.
"That's the way you've got to look at it as players. Every one means a lot," winger 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."
You could also argue that cruising to a berth hasn't exactly worked in the Caps' favor. They had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference in 2008-09 and lost in the second round of the playoffs. The following year brought a Presidents' Trophy for the top NHL record and a first-round loss. Last season Washington again topped the conference and lost in the second round. Maybe some struggles will do them good.
"The last couple of years we've coasted into the playoffs pretty easy while other teams had to fight and scrap by and grind their way in," forward Brooks Laich said. "And maybe that benefits them in the playoffs. You never really know. But it's the situation we've been dealt with, and we have to make sure we get in."
It won't be easy. The Sabres are on fire with a 13-2-4 record since Feb. 17, a date they began in 14th place in the conference. They are the only team fighting for its season that has actually performed consistently down the stretch.
"We had a good showing [Sunday] against Minnesota, but we're playing a pretty tough team that's playing really well," forward Troy Brouwer said. "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."