A productive weekend and some help from their rivals have the Capitals back in control of their Stanley Cup playoff fate. But given the way this NHL regular season has gone, they can't exactly feel comfortable with three games remaining.
Washington blew yet another two-goal lead -- the third time it has done that in five games -- yet recovered again to beat the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday at Verizon Center 3-2. After Buffalo's shocking loss at hapless Toronto that same night, suddenly the Caps (40-31-8, 88 points) were two points ahead in the chase for the final Eastern Conference postseason spot with the tiebreaker in hand against the Sabres (38-31-10, 86 points).
That's quite a turnaround from Tuesday, when Buffalo thumped Washington 5-1 and pushed it out of a playoff spot. At the time, forward Brooks Laich insisted there was still too much hockey left -- five games -- to panic. Now, with just three games remaining for each team, the Caps have to take the same approach entering Monday's game at Tampa Bay.
|Capitals at Lightning|
|When » Monday, 7 p.m.|
|Where » Tampa Bay Times|
|Forum, Tampa, Fla.|
|TV » CSN|
"It's a tough loss, but it's not a devastating one," Laich said after the Sabres game. "We reduce ourselves to fighting every day. You don't look any further than that. You live to fight one more day, and you make the most of your chances."
They did so with a surprising win at Boston on Thursday and then the Montreal victory. Buffalo also lost to Pittsburgh at home Friday. So the math remains simple -- but this time in Washington's favor: Win two of the final three games against Tampa Bay, Florida and the New York Rangers and the Caps automatically qualify.
"I think this last games going to be very hard," left wing Alex Ovechkin said. "Again, teams help us. Toronto beat Buffalo. [Tampa Bay], it's going to be huge for us. It's the playoffs right now. [They] start for us a long time ago."
That's much easier done with star center Nicklas Backstrom back in the lineup. In his first game since a Jan. 3 (concussion), Backstrom played 19:40. That's a little more than he expected, but coach Dale Hunter used him extensively on the power play. Backstrom took two shots on goal, won 12 of his 18 faceoffs (67 percent) and just missed connecting with Ovechkin for a goal. He was also on the ice when Erik Cole scored his goal late in the first period.
Backstrom's importance to the power play is obvious -- even if his team did go 0-for-5 against the Canadiens. Without him, Washington is 15-for-102 (14.7 percent). With him, it is 25-for-138 (18.1 percent). There might be too much rust and not enough time to shake it off. But with every game a virtual must-win, the Caps would rather have him than not.
[Backstrom] can escape from two, three guys and make a tape-to-tape pass, flat pass," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "Guys get open, and he hits them with the puck. He helps everybody be better."