It's not Game 7, but plenty at stake for Caps, Sabres
In Buffalo on Monday, you had Lindy Ruff talking as if Tuesday's game against the Capitals is just another big one in a season of 82, even though the veteran coach with 563 career victories knows that the Sabres' next game most definitely is not like the others.
At roughly the same time in Washington, you had Dale Hunter comparing Tuesday's showdown against the Sabres to Game 7 of a playoff series, even though the former NHLer and veteran of nine Game 7s knows nothing really compares to the winner-takes-all game in the postseason.
The true meaning of this clash between the Capitals and streaking Sabres lies somewhere in the middle of one-of-82 and Game 7, but considering each team is playing for the right to control its own playoff fate with only 12 days left in the season you can see why Hunter is trying to bring a slice of Game 7 drama into his club's dressing room.
Washington and Buffalo each have 84 points with six games remaining. The Capitals have six more non-shootout wins and therefore enter the day as the eighth-place team in the Eastern Conference.
"It's a big game," Hunter told reporters at Capitals practice on Monday. "The players know it, we know it, so does the other team, and their coaches know it. It should be a heck of a game."
If you prefer to look at it from Buffalo's perspective, it should be fairly easy to understand why Ruff decided to couch his words and not dig too deep into the drama surrounding Tuesday's game.
The single game at a time, one is not bigger than the others approach has served the Sabres well since the All-Star break, when they were 14th in the Eastern Conference, 10 points out of eighth place, and pretty much left for dead. They were still 14th in the East and 10 points out of eighth as late as Feb. 17, but here they come into D.C. riding a four-game winning streak with a chance to take sole possession of eighth in the East.
The Sabres are 13-2-3 over their last 18 games, and 18-5-5 in their last 28 going back to a 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey on Jan. 24.
"They're a team with increasing confidence," Capitals right wing Mike Knuble told the washingtoncapitals.com on Monday. "Their confidence is just growing every game. It's a very hungry team right now."
Red hot goalie Ryan Miller was named the NHL's Second Star of the Week on Monday for winning four games and posting a 1.26 goals-against average and .956 save percentage in four starts. He is 17-3-5 with five shutouts, a 1.87 GAA and .937 save percentage since the All-Star break.
"It's just another game in a long line of games that are meaningful," Miller told reporters in Buffalo, according to the Buffalo News. "I'm not going to make it any different. It's just one big hockey game at this point that we have to win. We've had some challenges … and this is just another one."
The Sabres are getting production from up and down the lineup, but their line with Marcus Foligno, Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis has contributed 15 goals and 33 points in the last eight games. Buffalo has 29 goals in total in the last eight games and has picked up 14 of a possible 16 points.
"We're healthier, we spend less time playing in our own end, up ice we've been able to get more opportunities and we've been able to tilt the table on the chances," Ruff said Monday according to the Buffalo News. "I think we've been doing a better job lately of putting them away.
"We're locked into a real good brand of hockey."
Ah, but standing in Buffalo's way is a similarly poised group of Capitals coming off a 3-0 win over Minnesota behind yet another game-changing performance from resurgent superstar Alex Ovechkin, who has 9 goals in his last seven games and is up to 36 for the season.
Ovechkin was one step short of Miller last week in terms of League-wide honors as he was named the NHL's Third Star of the Week. Washington is 12-9-4 in its last 25 games, but 8-1-3 when Ovechkin scores at least one goal. He has 10 this month, the first time he's scored at least 10 in a single month since his 14 in October 2009.
"You're seeing some of his classic goals," Knuble said according to the Washington Post.
The Capitals might also be seeing the first of many classic runs from rookie goalie Braden Holtby, who is the expected starter Tuesday after making 28 saves in a 3-0 win over Minnesota on Sunday. The 22-year-old Saskatchewan native may have added the title Washington's goalie of the present to his already well-earned title of Washington's goalie of the future.
Holtby, who is up with the big club due to Tomas Vokoun's groin strain, is 2-0-1 with a 1.29 GAA and .955 save percentage in three starts since being recalled on March 18.
"He's a battler," Hunter said of Holtby. "You see him handle the puck, I think he really helps our 'D' a lot in making decisions. It's always a risk-reward thing when goalies leave their net, but he does it very well."
"I don't put too much into it," Holtby said, according to the Washington Post, when asked about earning starts in important games.
The Capitals, though, are putting a lot on Tuesday's game. They're not downplaying its significance in the playoff chase.
"It's definitely the kind of game that everyone wants to coach and play," Hunter said. "We know what is at stake here."
Ruff has to be thinking the same way, but his veteran savvy won't allow him to throw the season on Tuesday's outcome.
"It's a big game, obviously, but we have more games left after," Ruff said. "It's not the end of the world."