The Caps are running out of time. Are they running out of fight?

The Caps are running out of time. Are they running out of fight?

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Nick Jensen sat slumped down in his stall at KeyBank Center in Buffalo with a blank look on his face and a thousand-yard stare in his eyes. The 33-year-old defenseman had just finished playing his fourth-most minutes of the season, just two nights after playing his second most.

Just a few feet away, a hoarse-voiced Charlie Lindgren met with the media, attempting to sum up how the Washington Capitals had fallen short against the Sabres and where it left them going forward.

The 30-year-old goaltender, who has shouldered the largest workload of his professional career this season and is one of the main reasons Washington has — or had — a prayer of making it to the Stanley Cup playoffs, was nearly out of answers after the 4-2 loss. He was one of the first players to verbalize his steadfast belief that the Capitals would be able to make it back into the postseason this year. After a disappointing result in a game Washington needed to win, his dejection drove home the reality of what the Capitals are facing.

“I don’t even know,” Lindgren said when asked where the game got away from his team. “They get that first [goal] off a tip, one minute left in the first. I thought we had a really good first period, actually. I’m not sure. Overall, I thought we did some really good things. Again, it’s really frustrating to come up on the wrong side of it tonight.”

It took everything Washington had still to be in the race in the Eastern Conference going into the final week of the regular season. On Jan. 12, the Capitals were in 12th place in the East with 44 points, three behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the second wild-card spot. On Feb. 12, they were in 11th, six points back of the Detroit Red Wings in eighth. On March 12, they were in 10th, three points behind the New York Islanders.

And now, entering Friday’s games, they were in ninth, one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. Washington has gone 18-17-5 over the past three months, feeling as if it was on the verge of elimination nearly every step of the way. Remaining in the fight required a significant effort, both mentally and physically, to turn in the kind of tight-checking, hard-fought games the Capitals have to play to win.

It seems now, with three games remaining, that the energy expended to stay afloat may have left Washington just short of what it needs to get across the finish line.

“You certainly are aware of the mental strain that the last three months has put on the group, especially with the amount of young players going through it for the first time,” Washington Coach Spencer Carbery said Friday. “But then my head goes to this is the best time of the year to be playing meaningful games. That’s where you just drum up that extra bit of motivation and attention to detail and mental fortitude to perform at your best in these situations.”

The problem for the Capitals is that they have had to drum up that extra bit of motivation for three months. It hasn’t always been there — ugly, blowout losses are scattered throughout that stretch — but when they have fallen short, by and large they have bounced back with better efforts and more complete performances.

They also have played their past 19 games, from March 7 until Thursday, in the span of just 35 days, with two days off between games only once in that span. The schedule isn’t kind to any team around the NHL, but the relentless grind coupled with the intense way Washington has to play to win games hasn’t done the Capitals any favors.

“I mean yeah, it’s definitely challenging,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “But I think we’ve got a lot of veteran guys who know how to take those challenges on and have been through it before. It’s not like it’s a first-time experience and it’s really grinding on you. I think guys know when they get to the rink to be dialed in and be prepared. Be able to play each game, put it behind you.

“Win, loss, doesn’t matter. Just try to play the right way. … We’re still right there. I think obviously the next three games are huge. Feels like we’ve got to win them all, and that starts with tomorrow. Just got to have a singular focus and get the job done.”

Washington’s final stretch of three games in four nights, beginning with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday at Capital One Arena, will be no less grueling than what it has experienced over the past three months. Carbery believes in the resolve of his group, and the Capitals have used that resolve to get themselves to within a point of the postseason with three games remaining.

“We’ve continued to respond or fight, scratch, claw, however you want to describe it, in this scenario for the last three months,” Carbery said. “I believe genuinely that it’ll be no different tomorrow in how we play. Does that mean we’re going to win the hockey game? Hopefully. Doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee, but I know this group by now and I’m fairly confident that we’ll put everything we have into tomorrow and trying to find a result.”

There’s little doubt that Washington will put everything it has into Saturday’s game. The question, though, is just how much it has left.

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