WASHINGTON -- The mood was understandably somber in the Montreal Canadiens locker room following their 2-1 loss to the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on Thursday.
The Canadiens know they might be eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoff playoff contention before they take the ice for their next game, the regular-season finale against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Bell Centre on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SN, SN1, TVAS, NHL.TV). They'll have to watch and hope the New York Rangers give them a reprieve by defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets at Madison Square Garden on Friday (7 p.m. ET; TVAS, MSG+, FS-O, NHL.TV).
But no one on the Canadiens was ready to throw in the towel.
[RELATED: Canadiens-Capitals game recap]
"We're not dead," Montreal coach Claude Julien said. "I think we need some help. We understand that. So we've got a few days here to look at what's going to happen, and hopefully we're still alive by tomorrow night and give ourselves a chance here to stay in the race."
The Canadiens (43-30-8) are tied with the Blue Jackets (45-31-4) for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. But Columbus has two games left; it closes out the regular season at the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.
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The Blue Jackets also have three more regulation/overtime wins than the Canadiens, so Columbus would clinch a playoff berth via that tiebreaker should the teams finish even in points. That means if Columbus gets at least two points in its final two games, whether by a win or two overtime/shootout losses, it would qualify for the playoffs and Montreal would go home for a long offseason regardless of the outcome of its game Saturday.
"It's not over yet," Canadiens captain Shea Weber said. "We'll see what happens in [Columbus'] next two games, and if we can win Saturday and for whatever reason get some good fate, we'll be in. And if not, we'll discuss it after that."
The Canadiens weren't ready to begin a postmortem on their season Thursday, but there's plenty for them to be proud about no matter how the next two days go. After finishing 30 points out of a playoff spot last season, they've been one of the NHL's feel-good stories with the relentless effort they've given for most of this season.
They stayed in the thick of the playoff race by going 6-1-1 in their previous eight games, including a 3-1 win Saturday at the Winnipeg Jets, who are batting for first in the Central Division, and a 4-2 home win Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the runaway Presidents' Trophy winners with an NHL-best 126 points.
"When you look at what's at stake and the margin of error is pretty thin for our hockey club, and I think overall our team has done a great job of managing that," Julien said before the game Thursday. "They go out there, they play hard. We're not playing tight. We've lost some tough games, but for the most part I think we've been a really good hockey club."
The loss to the Capitals, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, would qualify as one of those tough games. Montreal perhaps played well enough to win on another night, pressuring Washington into mistakes that led to scoring chances. But the Canadiens couldn't find a way to get a second goal past Braden Holtby, who made 33 saves.
"It was definitely one of those playoff-type games and I thought overall we played pretty well," said Montreal goalie Carey Price, who made 29 saves. "Holtby played great."
The Canadiens didn't have any luck on the out-of-town scoreboard either. The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the visiting New Jersey Devils 3-1 to clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2009, leaving one spot unclaimed in the East.
Weber said after the game that he didn't know what the Hurricanes did against the Devils, but he was clearly aware of what losing to the Capitals meant to the Canadiens' postseason hopes.
"I think I don't think anyone in there didn't want to win or didn't give everything they have," Weber said. "Maybe it wasn't our best overall effort in the last little bit, but I don't think there's anyone in here that didn't give everything for the team."
That's all the Canadiens can ask at this point in the season, but it was clear they weren't satisfied with making it this far only to fall short of the playoffs with one day left. So they'll root for the Rangers on Friday, and maybe they'll have something to play for against the Maple Leafs.
It's a helpless feeling, but Montreal has no alternative.
"I don't sweat too much on things I can't control," Julien said. "So we'll wait and see."