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Red Wings set for crucial battle with Capitals: 'If we beat them, we’re in a playoff spot'


The heavily contested race for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference continues Tuesday with a crucial matchup between the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings.

The Capitals have surged to hold the playoff spot entering Tuesday's game, sitting one point ahead of Detroit with a game in hand.

The Red Wings, who have struggled at 3-7-0 in their past 10, are looking to bounce back after suffering a 1-0 defeat to the Nashville Predators to open their current five-game road trip on the weekend. 

“It’s a fun time of year,” said veteran Patrick Kane, who is in his first season with the Red Wings. “It’s almost like you’re in the playoffs right now, even though there’s 11 games left. You look at tomorrow like it’s a playoff game. Obviously it’s a team ahead of us in the standings. If we beat them, we’re in a playoff spot. I know they have a game in hand, but they’re playing really well right now.

"It’ll be a good test for us, but these games are fun to play in.”

After appearing to be in strong position to hold onto their playoff spot at the end of February, a seven-game losing streak for the Red Wings reopened the playoff race. Detroit has gone 3-2-0 since their losing skid, trading the final wild-card spot with the Capitals over the past week as the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins all lurch behind. 

The Capitals have won five of their past six games to jump inside the playoff picture, thanks in no small part to the resurgent play of captain Alex Ovechkin. The 38-year-old winger has eight goals in last five games and 17 since the start of February after posting just nine in the season's first 44 games. 

“I don't know,” Ovechkin said of why he's suddenly regained his scoring touch. “The puck goes in.”

The Capitals, however, believe the timing is no coincidence as the team fights to return to the playoffs after missing out a year ago.

 “It’s not surprising,” defenceman John Carlson said. “It’s obviously great to see at a pivotal time of the year, too, so that’s huge. The captain [is] leading the troops and we’ve kind of fallen in line.”

Washington has also closed to within two points of the Philadelphia Flyers for third in the Metropolitan division with two games in hand. A win Tuesday would drop the Flyers into the final wild-card spot after holding a divisional spot for most of the season. 

The Capitals’s surge has come after the team sold at the trade deadline, moving winger Anthony Mantha to the Vegas Golden KnightsJoel Edmundson to the Toronto Maple Leafs and shipping forward Evgeny Kuznetsov to the Carolina Hurricanes

Despite holding a playoff spot at the time, Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman elected to largely stand pat at the trade deadline. The Red Wings made just one trade, sending winger Klim Kostin to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for defenceman Radim Simek and a seventh-round pick, with Yzerman citing organizational depth.

“Ultimately, I’d like to think part of why we weren’t very active this year at the deadline is that we like the depth we have within the organization,” Yzerman said at the time. “We have some good players in Grand Rapids. So here, sitting at the deadline, looking at some of the areas we felt maybe could help us, ultimately giving up a first-, second- or third-round pick for depth, we’re better off bringing up our guys from Grand Rapids for that.”

“Whoever is coming in, somebody has to come out of the lineup – whether they’re going out and getting traded or they’re a healthy scratch,” he added later. “That affects the locker room. But ultimately, we’re trying to improve the team, and at what cost? The things we were looking at, or thought we could do, to give up first-round or second-round picks and what we consider good prospects for guys that aren’t really filling holes, they’re going to replace the same player who is going to sit in the stands for them.”

Following Tuesday's game, the Red Wings and Capitals have one more matchup on the schedule, set for April 9 in Detroit.