With six games remaining in the 2011/12 season, the Washington Capitals find themselves in unfamiliar territory. They are a bubble team that need to win every chance they get to solidify a playoff berth.
With 84 points through 76 games, the Capitals are tied with the Buffalo Sabres, finding themselves only in a playoff spot because of their advantage in the tiebreaker—more combined wins in regulation and overtime. That said, the Sabres have been closing quickly, and with a 7-1-2 record in their last 10 games (including a four-game winning streak), they are playing some of their best hockey of the season.
Here are four things the Washington Capitals must do in order to reach the playoffs.
For the second straight season, the Washington Capitals have three very solid goaltenders heading into the playoffs. With Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun all playing well, the Caps have a tough decision to make regarding their postseason starter.
Last season, the team made a decision about who would backstop them early in the playoffs, and they were able to find relative success because of that. Doing that again this year is crucial. Whether it be Holtby, Neuvirth or Vokoun, one of them needs to be chosen, and the teams needs to stick with him.
General Manager George McPhee has worked very hard over the past few summers to add veteran experience to his lineup. His quest has left him with the likes of Roman Hamrlik and Mike Knuble complementing the team's talented youngsters.
Down the stretch and into the playoffs is when those investments are going to start paying off. Sure, the point production has been disappointed, but the presence of two players in their very late 30s is still very valuable. Having the veterans sitting out in the press box will serve to do nothing. To find success, the Caps must make better use of their older statesmen.
April 5th will bring undoubtedly the most important regular season game for the Caps since the team beat the Florida Panthers on April 7th, 2007 in the season's last game to qualify for the playoffs by way of a Southeast Division title in Bruce Boudreau's first year. The Capitals once again take on the Sunrise team at the Verizon Center in a game that is likely to determine the organization's playoff hopes for this season.
With seven games remaining, the Panthers lead the lowly Southeast Division by three points over the Caps and have a game in hand. With any luck, the Cats will lose a few of their games, leaving the Caps the opportunity to overtake them. If they want to win their fifth straight Southeast Division title, this is a must-win game.
While he does have seven goals in his last five games and nine in the last seven, the days of flat-out dominance from Alex Ovechkin are, with the exception of right now, seemingly behind us. To be at his very best, Ovi needs his sidekick Nicklas Bäckström beside him.
Everything is better when the Super Swede is in the lineup. From the power play to the penalty kill to the first line to the fourth line, having Bäckström in the lineup gives the Caps a better chance of winning, night in and night out. If this team wants to be a serious contender once the playoffs roll around, Nicklas Bäckström has to be in the lineup.
Follow Jake Ware on Twitter at @JacobWare95