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With a playoff spot near, the Caps know ‘everything matters right now’

With a playoff spot near, the Caps know ‘everything matters right now’

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

With just two games remaining, the Washington Capitals’ path to the Stanley Cup playoffs is simple. If they beat the Boston Bruins at home Monday and the Philadelphia Flyers on the road Tuesday, they’re in.

There are other scenarios that would push Washington across the line, but the most straightforward way, the way that lets the Capitals stay in control of their own fate, is to win both.

While the path is straightforward, completing it will not be. Through 80 games, Washington has swung between impressive highs, such as a stretch of eight wins in 11 games in March that made a playoff berth look close to assured, and staggering lows, such as the 1-5-2 skid that left their postseason spot in jeopardy before Saturday’s win over Tampa Bay.

“Everything matters right now — every single moment,” goaltender Charlie Lindgren said Saturday. “It’s certainly something that none of us are taking for granted. We realize how fun this is, playing in environments like these, and it’s been an absolute blast. We’ve got two games here left and, obviously, just lay it all out there.”

The win over Tampa Bay put Washington back in the Eastern Conference’s second and final wild-card spot with 87 points, tied with the Detroit Red Wings and the Flyers but holding the tiebreaker over each. The Pittsburgh Penguins are one point behind and remain in the mix. Also, third place in the Metropolitan Division remains in play for the Capitals and Penguins; the New York Islanders (90 points) hold that spot.

The Capitals banded together Saturday after defenseman Nick Jensen was injured late in the first period, rallying around the idea of playing like Jensen — hard-nosed, physical and straightforward — and winning for him. Emotionally, seeing Jensen’s injury was challenging for his teammates, but they got a lift when he walked out of Capital One Arena with his family. Physically, losing one of their top four defensemen — while still playing without Rasmus Sandin, who suffered an upper-body injury against Ottawa on April 7 — put Washington’s remaining blue-liners in a difficult spot.

John Carlson and Martin Fehervary each logged more than 27 minutes Saturday; Carlson played 27:25 with Fehervary close behind at 27:06. Alex Alexeyev and Trevor van Riemsdyk played 21:42 and 21:28, while rookie Vincent Iorio, who had four games of NHL experience before being called into duty after Sandin’s injury, skated 11:17.

In this win-and-get-in situation, the Capitals will have to lean on Iorio, Alexeyev, van Riemsdyk and either Lucas Johansen or Dylan McIlrath to shoulder a significant load in the season’s last two games. McIlrath was recalled from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears on Sunday morning and joined the Capitals for an optional practice.

“I think from [the] opponents, [the] type of games that we’re going to be playing in, I think he makes a lot of sense,” Capitals Coach Spencer Carbery said of McIlrath. “I think from a leadership experience standpoint, coming into these situations and not being overwhelmed by the moment, I think he fits the bill as well.”

McIlrath is Hershey’s captain; he played one game with Washington earlier this season and six last season. The No. 10 pick in the 2010 draft by the New York Rangers, McIlrath played in one Stanley Cup playoff game with the Rangers in 2016. He has a wealth of experience in big moments at the AHL level, including winning the Calder Cup with the Bears last summer, but there’s no question the situation he’s stepping into now is the most critical task he has faced in the NHL in years.

“It’s easy to say that you don’t get nervous as you get older, but that’s not true. It’s just as exciting and anxious to get in the lineup again, but I definitely have a lot more experience to lean on than I did when I was a rookie,” said McIlrath, who turns 32 this week. “Played in some big, important games. Played a lot of minutes down in Hershey.”

Carbery didn’t state with certainty that McIlrath will draw into the lineup Monday, but the subtext of his comments about McIlrath’s experience indicated he is likely to be the choice over the 26-year-old Johansen.

Iorio is likely to see a larger role against the Bruins; his minutes were limited Saturday in part because with five defensemen somebody is always the odd man out. He was called up from Hershey after Ethan Bear entered the NHL’s player assistance program in late March; at the time, Iorio was not expected to contribute significant minutes in must-win games. But now Washington has no choice but to turn to players such as Iorio and McIlrath as it tries to squeeze into the playoffs.

As they have for the past three months, the Capitals are keeping a narrow focus.

“I think our mind-set’s just about tomorrow,” Iorio said. “It’s a really big game for us and them. They’re trying to — well, I don’t know exactly what they’re trying to do, but we know what we’re trying to do. We need to take things shift by shift because it’s an important game.”

The Bruins are trying to clinch the Atlantic Division title. Washington is trying to get back into the playoffs with an unlikely late-season push, and pulling it off will require major contributions from players who began the season well down the depth chart.

The Capitals know what they need to do — and what’s at stake on every shift in the final two games.

“We can only control what we can control, and that’s what we did tonight,” center Nic Dowd said after Saturday’s win. “Everything falls on us now, right? … These next two games, this entire season, comes down to our group being able to get to where we need to be and do it together.”

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