Mark Goldman/Icon SMI)
There are eight games on the NHL schedule Tuesday, but none is bigger than Buffalo’s visit to Washington for a head-to-head battle for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Winnipeg’s 6-4 loss to Ottawa Monday night practically eliminated the Jets from contention, making the final postseason berth a two-horse race between the Sabres and Capitals.
At the season’s start, most would have thought this match-up was more likely to decide a top seed in the East rather than the final one, but the two underachieving teams have instead found themselves fighting for the final slot for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Sabres are winners of four straight and have gained at least a point in eight in a row, riding goaltender Ryan Miller down the stretch. The Capitals have been up and down since Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau behind the bench. They are 2-0-2 in their last four, but have managed just four regulation wins in their last 14. Their ace in the hole has been captain Alexander Ovechkin, who has goals in five straight games and three goals in three games against the Sabres this season.
The season series has been close, with the Sabres having won both games in Buffalo and the Capitals coming out on top in D.C. on Dec. 30. But with Tomas Vokoun still nursing a groin injury, Washington will give the Sabres a different look tonight by starting rookie goalie Braden Holtby — who earned a shutout by stopping all 28 shots in the Capitals’ 3-0 Sunday over Minnesota — over Michael Neuvirth in net.
This won’t be Buffalo’s first time against Holtby – one of just four blemishes on Holtby’s 10-2-2 record last season was a 3-2 overtime loss to the Sabres on Nov. 13, 2010.
The Capitals, of course, know Miller well. He has 22 career starts against Washington and is 1-1 with an .884 save percentage and 2.53 goals-against average this season. But those two games this season came before Miller’s amazing play the past two months. Since Jan. 24, Miller is a combined 18-3-5 with five shutouts.
Regardless of a regulation or overtime result, Tuesday’s winner will move into sole possession of eighth place and within two points of seventh-place Ottawa, while the loser will be one or two points out of a playoff spot — with just five games remaining.
Southeast Division Notes
Carolina Hurricanes – Tuesday’s game against Toronto will mathematically eliminate the loser of that game from the playoffs, pushing them at least 11 points back of the Washington-Buffalo winner with just five games remaining.
Florida Panthers – The Panthers will look to snap a three-game winless streak Tuesday in Montreal, the first of four in a row on the road. Florida currently holds a three-point Southeast Division lead on the Capitals with a game in hand. Scott Clemmensen is the likely starter in net for the Panthers against the Canadiens.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Steven Stamkos broke the franchise record for goals in a season by scoring his 53rd in Monday’s 5-3 win over Philadelphia. Vincent Lecavalier had previously held the mark with 52 goals in 2006-07.
Winnipeg Jets – While not yet officially out of the postseason race, the Jets’ 6-4 loss against the Senators Monday essentially sealed the team’s fate. Winnipeg rallied from behind three times against Ottawa, but allowed the game-winning goal to Daniel Alfredsson with 2:33 remaining — just 24 seconds after Evander Kane had tied the game 4-4 — followed by an empty-netter by Milan Michalek. Winnipeg will be eight points back after tonight’s Sabres-Capitals game with a game in hand, but would need a miracle to climb over both Buffalo and Washington with just six games to play.