Caps face uphill playoff battle following 5-1 loss to Sabres

To say that Tuesday's 5-1 shellacking the Buffalo Sabres gave the Washington Capitals was embarrassing would be an understatement. 

To say that it happened with the eight seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs on the line and at home? Unacceptable. 

The Sabres' sixth-straight win was more than convincing. They looked like a team ready for the playoffs. They looked like a team hungry to get into the playoffs. They looked like a team that wants to get into the playoffs. 

Washington, on the other hand, squandered a chance to put themselves two points ahead of Buffalo with a so-called must-win home game. A win would have put the Caps a theoretical four-points ahead of the Sabres due to an advantage in both points and a tiebreaker should the teams be tied at the end of 82 games. 

Instead, the Caps will be chasing the hottest team in hockey with just five games left. Those games are at Boston, vs. Montreal, at Tampa Bay, vs. Florida and at the New York Rangers. The only two "gimmes" in that bunch are the sulking Montreal Canadiens and fading Tampa Bay Lightning. But both pose threats in goaltender Carey Price in Montreal and the league's top goal-scorer in Tampa in on Steven Stamkos. The Caps need to find a way to get points against Boston, Florida and New York to have a chance to leap the Sabres, who play the Penguins, Leafs twice, Flyers and Bruins in their last five games. 

While a two-point gap isn't impossible to make up, the Sabres are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games and don't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The Caps need to start playing like there's no tomorrow, which starts at Boston on Thursday when the Caps can leap into eight place again with the Sabres off until playing Pittsburgh on Friday. The Caps have won two of the three matchups with the Bruins this season. 

Let's look at what Dale Hunter and the Caps have to do better in order to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-2007 season: 

  • Powerplay needs to improve. The Caps went 0-4 on the man-advantage on Tuesday against the Sabres. Failing to score on the powerplay lost momentum for the Caps and it showed in the second and third periods. 
  • Better goaltending. Rookie Braden Holtby was yanked after allowing three goals on 18 shots in a game he should never have started in the first place. Dale Hunter needs to play the experienced goalie Michael Neuvirth in place of veteran Tomas Vokoun or else he'll continue to get inconsistent effort from the rookie. 
  • Leadership. Captain Alex Ovechkin has goals in five of his last six games, he's trying to put the team on his back but he needs help. When Buffalo's defense suffocated him on Tuesday that created chances for teammates like Mike Green and Alex Semin that simply weren't finished. That can't happen anymore, someone has to step up not named Ovechkin. 
  • Better coaching. I'm looking at you Dale Hunter, Jim Johnson and Dean Evason. This team wasn't ready to play in a pseudo playoff game, and it showed. Get things together or you'll all be looking for jobs in a couple weeks. Fix the powerplay and find a way to get Ovechkin away from shutdown pairs, especially at home for God's sake. 

The bottom line is that this isn't an impossible feat, but the Caps need contributions from up and down the lineup in order to jump back into the playoff picture. And if they don't, well it'll be a long summer in D.C.