As the Washington Capitals gear up for what they hope is a lengthy playoff run, the Buffalo Sabres' late push looks more and more likely to be cut short.
The Sabres are badly in need of victories to save their bid to reach the postseason, and they'd love to start a stretch of three straight games against top Stanley Cup contenders with a win Friday night in Washington.
With five games left on their regular-season schedule, the high-powered Capitals (47-23-7) are simply hoping to keep their offense in gear and lock up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The stakes are much higher for Buffalo (37-30-9). The Sabres stumbled last month with top goalie Ryan Miller sidelined due to an ankle injury, and despite a three-game winning streak highlighted by Miller's return last week, their odds of missing the playoffs for the second straight year are growing.
Coach Lindy Ruff's club felt it squandered a point in a 3-2 overtime loss at Atlanta on Wednesday night, and it now trails the eighth-place New York Rangers by six points. The Sabres have two games in hand on New York, but they also need to pass ninth-place Florida.
"We're well aware of it," Miller said. "You can see it on anybody's face in here. We had our chances to win, and now we lose out on the point. It's not good enough. We've got to find a way."
The road won't get any easier for the Sabres, with upcoming games against New Jersey and Detroit after Friday's contest.
That schedule helped make Wednesday's defeat feel even more costly. Thomas Vanek scored both of Buffalo's goals against Atlanta, giving him 37 for the season, but he also took the blame for the loss after his turnover resulted in a breakaway and the winning score for Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk 4:30 into overtime.
"I gave their best player a breakaway to lose the game for us," Vanek said. "It's disappointing. It's tough when you let your teammates down like that."
Buffalo will have to be wary of several of the Capitals' big guns - most notably Alexander Ovechkin, who scored his NHL-leading 54th goal in Washington's 5-3 win over the New York Islanders on Wednesday night.
Ovechkin now has four goals and three assists in his last three games and has reached 100 points for the third time in his four NHL seasons.
Mike Green also had a pair of power-play goals during the Capitals' three-goal burst in the second half of the third period against the Islanders, making him the eighth defenseman in NHL history with 30 goals in a season.
"When he's on," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said of Green, "he's pretty good to watch."
The win was the team's second straight by a 5-3 score, as the Capitals attempt to lock down second place in the East. They lead third-place New Jersey by three points.
They've also tallied five goals three times in their last five contests after going the previous 12 games without doing it, and they've scored 14 goals while winning three straight home games after a four-game losing streak at the Verizon Center.
Offense has not come easily for Washington against Miller, who is 8-3-0 with a 2.53 goals-against average in his career against the Capitals.
Washington's back-to-back wins over the Sabres on Dec. 26 and 30 were their first in the series since the 2002-03 season, and the team can win the season series for the first time since then with a victory Friday.