Skidding Capitals ‘running out of room’ in playoff chase


RALEIGH, N.C. — The Washington Capitals returned to a silent locker room shortly after 11 p.m. on Saturday night, shedding their gear and wiping off their eye-black as the Carolina Hurricanes, who had just beaten them, 4-1, could be heard celebrating in the quarters next door. The scene was as stark as the blowout that had played out over the prior three hours in the open air of Carter-Finley Stadium — one team enjoying its continued rise as a Stanley Cup contender, the other reeling after a fourth straight loss and another missed opportunity to earn points in a tightening playoff race.

After their most difficult week of the season, a group of Capitals veterans spared no descriptors for their latest dud.

“This isn’t good enough,” forward Tom Wilson said.

“It doesn’t look good, that’s for sure,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.

“We’re kind of running out of room,” winger T.J. Oshie said. “I think our playoff hockey probably starts in this next week here, otherwise we’re going to be on the outside looking in.”

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That’s where the Capitals will begin the week — out of the playoffs and sitting a point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. There are six teams within a point of each other in the wild-card race — the Capitals, with 62 points, received some help Saturday with several of those teams losing — but with 24 games remaining and possible changes looming ahead of the March 3 trade deadline, the clock is ticking on Washington’s push to make a ninth consecutive postseason appearance.

A crucial stretch arrives this week, including games against the Detroit Red Wings and the Buffalo Sabres, both teams that have closed the gap in the chase for a wild-card berth.

“We have to get our confidence back, we have to get our swagger back a little bit,” Wilson said. “It’s tough when you lose a couple in a row. We’re going to regroup here and try to get the team together here.”

After beginning the second half of the season with a promising win over the Boston Bruins, who own the league’s best record, Washington lost considerable ground last week. The Capitals led in none of their four losses over a six-day stretch, were outscored 17-7 in those contests and struggled to compensate for the absence of Alex Ovechkin, who remains away from the team after the death of his father. Washington is also still missing center Nic Dowd, who continues to recover from a lower body injury, as well as defenseman John Carlson, who remains out after being hit in the side of the head with a puck earlier this season.

“Obviously missing our number forward and our number one defenseman, that doesn’t help. But the guys in the lineup are more than capable of getting us wins,” Oshie said. “We haven’t been playing good enough to do that.”

Washington’s latest loss resembled the three others that came before it last week. From the outset, Carolina played in a different gear, dictating the pace and exposing the Capitals’ lack of speed. The Hurricanes controlled the neutral zone and swarmed Washington on the boards. Without Ovechkin, Washington again struggled to get quality looks at the net — the Capitals mustered just 15 shots on goal through the first two periods as Carolina took a 4-0 lead — and squandered its two power play opportunities. The Capitals have scored twice on their 13 power plays over this four-game skid.

When Backstrom was asked what needed to be fixed in the Capitals’ approach, he replied, “Everything, to be honest with you. D-zone, neutral zone, offensive zone. It’s not working.”

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The Capitals did get a boost with the return of Wilson, who appeared in his first game Saturday after suffering a lower body injury in late January. He was active, laying a few of his signature checks and drawing a penalty in the first period. Wilson scored Washington’s only goal in the middle of the third period, muscling his way down the left side of the ice and beating Carolina goaltender Frederik Anderson with a slap shot after creating separation from a Hurricanes defender.

Wilson, who has played in just nine games this season after offseason knee surgery, said afterward that he was running on adrenaline from the raucous outdoor atmosphere, and that he needed to work on his conditioning. “We need to get going here and get back to work,” he said, and that sentiment was echoed across the somber locker room.

The Capitals don’t know when Ovechkin might return. As they bused to the stadium for practice on Friday evening, their phones pinged with a message from their captain. He told them that he loved them and missed them, Wilson said, and many of the players responded with messages of prayer and support. For now, the Capitals are without the face of the franchise, returning home this week to attempt to save their season while awaiting Ovechkin’s return.

“I think the only answer to getting some swagger back is to get wins,” Oshie said. “And to get wins right now, we need to play a playoff style hockey.”

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