Playoff hopes nearly on life support

It is impossible for the Capitals to escape the reality of their situation. Even if they somehow avoided newspapers and websites and television and radio, the Eastern Conference standings are plastered on a board inside the organization's practice facility in Arlington.

And it isn't pretty. In 14th place in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the Southeast Division, Washington enters Thursday night's game against the first place Carolina Hurricanes in desperate need of a win to keep their division title hopes alive. Following a dispiriting 4-0 loss at home to the Hurricanes on Tuesday, the rematch in Raleigh approaches must-win territory.

"Just looking at it, we've got to have a pretty amazing record the next 23 to give ourselves a good chance [at the postseason]," defenseman Karl Alzner said after practice Wednesday at Kettler Iceplex. "You can't look too far ahead, but we know that this next game is not only huge for the points but huge for morale. And that's what this team needs right now."

Up next
Capitals at Hurricanes
When » Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where » PNC Center,
Raleigh, N.C.

Washington remains seven points behind the New York Rangers, the No. 8 seed in the conference playoff chase. There is still some hope there. But they need a far more sustained effort against the Hurricanes, who survived some shaky play early, got a fluke goal to take the lead and never looked back.

A win and the Hurricanes would be 12 points ahead of the Caps in the division. But they also know that 4-0 victory means little now. After all, Washington two weeks earlier had pasted an undermanned Carolina 3-0 before the favor was repaid. The Caps were missing three defensemen in Tuesday's loss and played Cameron Schilling, making his NHL debut, and Steve Oleksy, appearing in his fifth NHL game.

"You just can't take anything for granted," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "That was one of our strongest 60-minute performances this year, and in a big game, that's great with having so many young guys. ... We did take advantage, at times, of some inexperience on their group, too. It shows how tough a league it is."

The Caps (10-14-1, 21 points) shifted their lines at Wednesday's practice with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin reunited on the top line. Marcus Johansson, after his two best games of the season, is now the second-line center. Mike Riberio moves to the third line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, a trio that had success together earlier this season. Meanwhile, forward Brooks Laich and defenseman Mike Green were both on the ice again Wednesday -- a good sign as they push to return from groin injuries. But neither is expected back this week to help their struggling teammates snap this inopportune three-game losing streak.

"It's an uncomfortable feeling. And that's part of being a pro is taking the highs and lows," Oates said. "And right now we need to put [Tuesday] behind us. We watched some video. We're going to show some more [Thursday] because we're playing the same team. But we need to find the energy between now and then to be professional and to have a good game."