March 30 vs. Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: 106.7 The Fan and Caps Radio Network
Washington Capitals (15-17-1)
Buffalo Sabres (13-16-5)
After a short stop at home, the Caps take to the road once again to play three away games in a span of four nights. First stop is Buffalo, where Washington pays its first and only visit to First Niagara Center this season to take on the Sabres on Saturday night.
The Capitals spent the week of March 18-24 on the road, going 3-1 to climb back into the playoff chase as they started on the final third of the abbreviated 2012-13 NHL season. The Caps won three road games in four nights last weekend, and they’ll haul a three-game road winning streak – their longest this season – with them to western New York.
During its stop in the District, Washington absorbed a stinging 3-2 loss to the New York Islanders at Verizon Center on Tuesday, a loss that vaulted the Isles ahead of Washington in the competitive chase for the final few playoff berths in the Eastern Conference standings.
After falling into a two-goal hole in the first period of Tuesday’s game against New York, the Capitals drew even in the second and had tilted momentum in their favor in the latter half of the third period. But New York’s John Tavares capitalized on a Mike Green turnover deep in the Washington zone to score what would prove to be the game-winning goal with 5:18 left in regulation.
Washington started the season with just two wins in its first 11 games (2-8-1), but the Capitals are now 13-9 in their last 22 contests. If maintained over a full 82-game season, the team’s pace over its last 22 games would result in a 97-point season and a likely playoff berth.
That’s all well and good, but in this truncated campaign Washington only has 15 games remaining, and it trails the eighth-place Islanders and Rangers by four points and the Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg Jets by seven. For the Capitals to squeeze their way into a playoff berth, they’ll need to go on a serious tear over the season’s final month, and they know it.
“It’s like your own little playoff series against a bunch of different teams fighting for the same thing,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera. “We’ll find out what our team is made out of. The last road trip was huge and now this road trip will be the same thing. We’re only four points back now, but if you win a couple in a row you maybe end up one point back. You’ve got to treat each game like it’s the last game, and try to win each game. That’s the biggest thing.”
Starting with its March 10 game against the New York Rangers, the Caps have gotten five regular players back into their lineup over the last few weeks. Washington has performed better during that stretch, winning five of its last eight games.
“You slowly see the real team that we could be,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “If it was a full season, you see how we could play if we had all those guys right from the start. Obviously all those guys make a big impact. It hurts when those guys aren’t in, but you definitely see a better team when they are in.”
“This year I think maybe more than ever, it doesn’t matter where you end up in the shortened season,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “The only thing that matters – and we’ve learned this in the past – is peaking at the right time. And I think our game is starting to come around. I think some other teams are starting to get injuries and maybe coming back to earth a little bit. But I think our team is on the rise and I still think our best hockey is ahead of us. Hopefully we see that in the last 15 games.”
Over the past five seasons, Washington has a history of performing well down the stretch, especially on the road. The Caps believe that experience will benefit them this season over the final 15 games of the slate.
“We’ve been in this situation before,” says Green, “having to go on a winning stretch to make the playoffs. It’s do or die every night. We can’t afford to give up any more points.”
Going into Saturday’s game against the Sabres, Buffalo and Washington are even with 31 points in the Eastern Conference standings, tied for 11th place in the conference. Whichever team wins will leave the other in its rear view mirror. The Capitals do hold a game in hand on the Sabres.
Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek did not play for Buffalo in the team’s Thursday night game against the Panthers in Florida. He suffered an upper body muscle strain earlier in the week and his status for this weekend is not known.
Washington and Buffalo last met in the District on March 17 with Washington prevailing by a 5-3 count. The Sabres have been on a bit of a run, going 3-1-1 since that game earlier this month.
In their game against the Panthers in South Florida on Thursday, the Sabres salvaged a point in a 5-4 shootout loss. Buffalo fell down 2-0 early in the second period of that contest, but rallied with three goals of its own in the middle frame to take a 3-2 lead into the third. Florida drew even on a power-play goal late in the third and won the skills competition.
The Sabres have scored at least one power play goal in five of their last six games, going 5-for-23 (21.8%) with the extra man during that span. On the other side of the special teams coin, Buffalo has surrendered at least one power play goal in 20 of its last 27 games, successfully killing just 80 of its 116 shorthanded missions (69%) during that stretch.
Like Washington, Buffalo also has a busy weekend ahead. The Sabres host the Boston Bruins on Sunday night.
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