April 13 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Capital One Arena

Time: 5:30 p.m.


Stream: MonSports.net/Stream

Radio: 106.7 The Fan, Capitals Radio 24/7

Tampa Bay Lightning (44-27-8)

Washington Capitals (37-31-11)

The Caps are back in town for their final homestand of the 2023-24 season, a two-game stay that starts late Saturday afternoon with a visit from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Saturday’s game against the Bolts represents a must win game for Washington, which has dropped seven of its last eight games (1-5-2), an extended spiral that sent them tumbling from a playoff position into a three-way tie for ninth place in the Eastern Conference with three games remaining.

Most recently, the Caps dropped a 4-2 decision to the Sabres in Buffalo on Thursday night, surrendering control over their playoff destiny in the process. With only three games remaining on the season, the Caps could win all three and still miss the playoffs. Their focus is on taking care of their own business and hoping for some help on the out-of-town scoreboard.

“The margin of error is so thin,” says Caps’ goalie Charlie Lindgren, one of the major reasons Washington is still playing meaningful hockey with three games left in the season. “You can’t take any second for granted. It’s been a really fun year; it’s been a really good year. But to me, if we come up short, it doesn’t mean as much.”

The season has been a grind, especially lately. But there’s still hope heading into the final three games of the campaign.

“This is the best time of year to be playing meaningful games,” says Caps’ coach Spencer Carbery. “You just drum up that extra motivation and attention to detail and mental fortitude to perform your best in these situations. We’ve continued to respond – or fight, scratch, claw; or however you want to describe it – in this scenario for the last three months. I believe genuinely that it will be no different [Saturday] of how we play.

“Does that mean we’re going to win the hockey game? Hopefully; it doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee. But I know this group by now, and I’m fairly confident that we’ll put everything we have into [Saturday’s game] and trying to find a result.”

This playoff chase in the East has been characterized by its fits and starts; virtually every team in the hunt has suffered through an extended losing spell at some point since the All-Star break. The New York Islanders dropped five of six right after the break, then won six straight, then dropped six in a row (0-5-1) and have now won six straight again to move into third place in the Metro Division. The Isles are on the verge of locking down one of the two remaining berths in the East.

Pittsburgh also dropped five of six right after the break, then lost seven of eight in late February and early March. But the Pens now have points in 10 straight games (7-0-3), pushing them a point past the Caps and into the second wild card berth that Washington, Detroit and Philadelphia are also still vying for.

On the morning of Feb. 28, Detroit owned a season high six-game winning streak and a comfortable four-point lead over New Jersey and the Isles for the second wild card slot. But the Wings promptly dropped seven straight – all in regulation – and they’ve been a decidedly pedestrian 5-5-3 since snapping that prolonged slide.

Philadelphia was a surprise team in the East for the first three-quarters of the season, but the Flyers have had a rough ride since. On the morning of Feb. 13, the Flyers owned a four-game winning streak, and they were six points above the playoff cutline, comfortably in third place in the Metro Division. But Philly has sputtered since, winning only eight of its last 26 games (8-13-5). The Flyers’ 4-1 win over the New York Rangers on Thursday halted an eight-game skid (0-6-2) in which Philly was outscored by a combined 42-18.

New Jersey was in a playoff position shortly after the turn of the calendar, but the Devils haven’t been able to find any traction since, even with a midseason coaching change. They’re 14-17-2 since the break, and although they haven’t lost more than three straight during that stretch, they haven’t won more than two straight since the turn of the calendar, and they’ve been mathematically eliminated.

As for the Caps, they forged a 14-6-2 run from Feb. 10-March 26, a stretch that – coupled with the struggles of the other clubs – lifted them into a playoff spot and into control of their own destiny with just 11 games remaining. But Washington’s offense has gone cold at an inopportune time, leading to the Caps’ current spiral. They’ve scored two or fewer goals in eight straight games, one game short of a dubious franchise mark that has occurred four times previously: in 1974-75 (0-9-0), in 1977-78 (0-6-3), in 2002-03 (3-6-0) and in 2003-04 (1-7-1).

Washington’s scoring struggles have put more pressure on the team’s defense and its goaltending down the stretch.

“Yeah, you can feel that, too,” acknowledges Carbery. “I feel that. It’s sort of similar to the beginning of the year, maybe the first 30 games, 40 games, where we knew that if we got down in a game, that it was going to be tough sledding.

“And then, as of late, we went through a stretch – let’s just call it 20 games – where it felt like we were finishing at a much higher rate, bounces were going our way, [Alex Ovechkin] was scoring consistently. And so you could feel there was a little bit of pressure let off if we gave one up or if we trailed in a game; it wasn’t as big of a deal. But now, you can feel it a little bit.

“That’s the product of a couple of things. Obviously, we’re not scoring, so finishing is an issue. But also, it’s tightening up; these games are really, really tight, and you’re playing against teams that are finishing strong. We do need to find some goals, and we need to find a way to get some production from different people, and get on the power play, and generate more shots in general – quality shots, rebounds – all the stuff that we’ve talked all year about. But we need to do it at a higher rate right now, especially in these last few games.”

Speaking of teams that are finishing strong, that absolutely applies to the Lightning, who have secured a seventh straight playoff berth and are headed to the postseason for the 10th time in the last 11 seasons. Tampa Bay won consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 2020 and 2021, and they reached the Cup Final for a third straight season in 2022.

The Lightning suffered a first-round exit from the dance last spring, but it will be going in on a bit of a tear this time around. As they arrive in the District for Saturday’s game, the Bolts are 14-4-3 in their previous 21 games, and they haven’t lost consecutive games in regulation since mid-February when the Caps handed them a third straight regulation setback, a 5-3 loss in Tampa on Feb. 22.

Saturday marks the Lightning’s last road game of the ’23-24 season. Tampa Bay returns home to finish up with a two-game homestand against Buffalo and Toronto, respectively.