Now’s not the time to get rat­tled by Sabres

Washington holds teams’ tiebreaker

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather - BY STEPHEN WHYNO

Ev­ery day, the Washington Cap­i­tals see the stand­ings board in the play­ers’ lounge and un­der­stand their sit­u­a­tion. They see the Buf­falo Sabres tied with 84 points and just be­low them thanks to a tiebreaker and know well that Tues­day night’s matchup at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter is crit­i­cal.

Coach Dale Hunter likened it to a “Game 7 of a se­ries,” and the stakes are high, but play­ers un­der­stand the sea­son doesn’t ac­tu­ally end if the Caps don’t beat the Sabres this time.

“Ev­ery one means a lot,” veteran right wing Mike Knu­ble said. “There’ll be a to­mor­row af­ter it, but it’s a game we want to have, and it’s a game that I think ev­ery guy in our room is look­ing for­ward to play­ing.”

This is how it should be with six games left in the reg­u­lar sea­son: two teams on the edge of the play­off race go­ing headto-head in a game that could de­cide who’s golf­ing by the sec­ond week of April. But it might not be ar­maged­don ei­ther way. Knu­ble in­di­cated that it cer­tainly is the big­gest game of the sea­son, since the last one. Buf­falo goalie Ryan Miller, who is 18-3-5 with a 1.83 goals-against av­er­age and .938 save per­cent­age since Jan. 24, feels the same way.

“It’s just one big hockey game at this point. We got to win. We’ve had some chal­lenges in the last few

months. This is just an­other one,” Miller said. “I think that’s how I’m ap­proach­ing it. I hope that’s how some of the other guys are ap­proach­ing it be­cause we re­ally shouldn’t do any­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Hunter has been say­ing for six weeks that the Cap­i­tals are in the midst of “play­off hockey.” That means more in­ten­sity in the locker room than in years past, when Washington cruised into the post­sea­son.

But just like Miller and the Sabres, that shouldn’t change any­thing from the Caps’ per­spec­tive, ei­ther.

“I just play ev­ery sin­gle game like it’s the ex­act same game. It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter if its sup­posed to be like a Game 7 or if it’s the first game of the sea­son,” de­fense­man Karl Alzner said. “Ob­vi­ously, get­ting the two points is very, very im­por­tant for us. But play­ing some good hockey is what we’ve got to stick with.”

Good hockey as in what they did Sun­day to the Min­nesota Wild in a 3-0 vic­tory, not the kind of sorry ex­cuse for hockey they put to­gether in two losses at Buf­falo in the first half of the sea­son.

But both teams have come a long way since then. The Sabres woke up in last place in the East­ern Con­fer­ence on Feb. 18 and were sellers at the trade dead­line. Buf­falo is 9-2-2 in March and is more than just a to­ken con­tender to make the play­offs.

“They’ve been play­ing re­ally, re­ally well. That’s a good hockey team,” Cap­i­tals de­fense­man Den­nis Wide­man said. “They’re play­ing like the hockey team that we ex­pected them to be all year.”

Ex­pect it to feel truly like play­off hockey, just as in games March 16 and last Fri­day against Win­nipeg did, when the Caps knew they could put the Jets away but failed to do so.

This isn’t the same kind of op­por­tu­nity, and the Cap­i­tals’ sea­son isn’t nec­es­sar­ily on the line. Not only is the di­vi­sion lead within reach, but the sev­enth seed is, too. The South­east-lead­ing Florida Pan­thers have lost three in a row and lead Washington by just three points, and the Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors were just two points up en­ter­ing Mon­day.

Even with sev­eral av­enues to a play­off spot, this game has a lot rid­ing on it.

“We’re play­ing a pretty tough team that’s play­ing re­ally well, they’ve got four wins in a row, and we feel that this is go­ing to be a very big de­ter­mi­na­tion whether we’re go­ing to make the play­offs,” right wing Troy Brouwer said.

But don’t ex­pect the value of this game to be a ma­jor topic of con­ver­sa­tion within the locker room.

“It doesn’t need to be stated,” de­fense­man Mike Green said. “It’s ev­i­dent.”

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