(AP) — The Washington Capitals’ lackluster play is nothing new, and with a month left in the season, it’s no longer safe to assume the four-time reigning Southeast Division champions will simply turn it on and make a playoff push.
As the losses pile up, Washington sounds less and less like a team that believes it can.
The Capitals try to avoid matching a season high with a fourth consecutive defeat when they wrap up a five-game homestand against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night.
Washington had more points than any team over the past two seasons and ruled the Southeast for two seasons before that, but a place in the Eastern Conference’s top eight is hardly a guarantee right now.
The Capitals find themselves in third place in the division and ninth in the conference with 16 games left, and their seven-game win streak to open the season couldn’t seem much more distant. After back-to-back shutouts, Washington (32-28-6) grabbed a point in a 4-3 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday but was hardly happy after blowing a two-goal lead.
“This time of year, you can’t judge yourself by your intentions, it’s by your results,” center Brooks Laich told the team’s official website. “It’s a game we had to have.”
The Capitals trail the division-leading Panthers by four points and are two behind Winnipeg, which holds the East’s eighth and final playoff spot. After this contest, Washington hits the road – where it’s 7-15-3 in its last 25 – for six of its next seven.
“We’re getting to that point,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “We’re making it really hard on ourselves going down the stretch here. We’ve got to start winning some hockey games here or we’re going to have to string together the last seven or eight of the season. We’re going to have to start winning.”
In addition to worrying about Florida and Winnipeg, the Caps need to start paying attention to the team directly behind them. Tampa Bay (31-29-6) has won seven of 10 to pull within two points of Washington, though it saw its four-game winning streak end with a 7-3 loss to Ottawa on Tuesday.
The lopsided defeat was hardly the biggest concern, however, after goaltender Mathieu Garon suffered a slight groin tear 3:54 into the game. He’s expected to miss three to four weeks, which puts the onus of the Lightning’s playoff push on Dwayne Roloson.
The veteran gave up the final five goals Tuesday to leave him at 2-8-1 with a 4.38 goals-against average over his last 16 appearances. Tampa is expected to recall Dustin Tokarski from the AHL to be Roloson’s backup.
“It was tough seeing Garon get hurt,” center Steven Stamkos, who scored his NHL-high 48th goal, told the league’s official website. “He’s been playing so well for us; he’s given us a chance to win a lot of hockey games recently, so when he went down, obviously that’s a blow.”
Roloson is 0-1-1 with a 3.87 GAA in two starts against Washington this season.
The Caps are 2-1-1 in the season series against the team that knocked them out of the 2011 playoffs, with each game being decided by one goal.
While Alex Ovechkin has been held to one goal by Tampa in 2011-12, Troy Brouwer has scored five times – including a hat trick in a 4-3 win Jan. 13 at the Verizon Center.
Stamkos has scored in three straight against Washington, but only has five goals in his last 13 games in the series.