The Capitals no longer can rely solely on themselves to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. A loss at home to Buffalo on Tuesday has left their fate partially in the hands of rival teams, an unthinkable position before the season began.
Starting on Thursday at Boston, they could win all five remaining games and still finish below the cut line. They will need Buffalo to lose at least once or hope Ottawa, four points ahead in seventh place, collapses. The math isn't promising. But no one is giving up yet.
"Unless you're out of the playoffs mathematically ... then you can always fix it," goalie Tomas Vokoun said. "Are we in a good spot? No. But there's five games. If we win five games, then we'll see where are at. We don't know what's going to happen with other teams."
|Capitals at Bruins|
|When » Thursday, 7 p.m.|
|Where » TD Garden, Boston|
|TV » CSN|
Indeed, No. 8 Buffalo -- a 5-1 winner at Verizon Center on Tuesday and two points ahead now -- has to face Pittsburgh on Friday. That's the one NHL team that has been hotter than the Sabres over the past month. The Sabres also have road games at playoff teams Philadelphia and Boston -- a fact several Caps players mentioned without prompting.
But for any of that to matter, Washington has to win its own games. After the difficult road contest at Boston, the current No. 2 seed, the Caps play Montreal at home and Tampa Bay on the road. Neither will be a playoff team. They finish with games at home against Florida, poised to break Washington's Southeast Division title run at four years, and at the New York Rangers, the conference's top team. One positive? The Caps have beaten the Bruins twice this season, including a 4-3 win in Boston on March 10.
"It's a good hockey team. I think when we play the way we're capable of playing, we can beat them and we've shown that," forward Matt Hendricks said. "We know what's on the line going up there. We know where we sit in the standings."
There's no word on who will start in goal for Washington. Rookie Braden Holtby started against Buffalo and was pulled after allowing three goals on 18 shots. Michal Neuvirth would seem in line to play, but Vokoun deemed himself healthy Wednesday after fighting a groin strain since last month. But Vokoun has played just three games since Feb. 22.
Meanwhile, the team recalled rookie forward Cody Eakin from Hershey of the American Hockey League on Wednesday. And star center Nicklas Backstrom, who took part in an optional morning skate at Kettler Iceplex, said he's "close" to returning from the concussion he suffered Jan. 3. Backstrom said he will not play against the Bruins, however.
"Being in such a close battle right up to the end is a little bit different," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "I like the pressure, and that every game is so meaningful is nice. But starting to experience both, I think I prefer to go in with a little more ease."