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East wild-card race remains wide open as Capitals stall

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Sitting in the final Eastern Conference wild-card spot, the Washington Capitals missed another opportunity Tuesday to jump the Philadelphia Flyers for third in the Metropolitan Division as they lost 6-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.

“We just gave up too many chances against and chasing the game the whole night,” forward Dylan Strome said of the loss, per NHL.com. “... Obviously, disappointing tonight. Would like to get some ground [in the playoff race], but it is what it is.

"One game, just move on, but not a good game, obviously, from us.”

But it hasn't been just one game for the Capitals, who have failed to gain ground in the standings amid a three-game winless run. Washington has been outscored 14-5 over the past three games, picking up a lone point in a shootout loss against the Boston Bruins on Saturday.

Washington continues to hold two games in hand on Philadelphia, who they trail by just a point. Their skid has allowed the Detroit Red Wings to tie them at 82 points, with one more game played at 75, with the New York Islanders one point back and the Pittsburgh Penguins three points back, both with 75 games played.

The Islanders improved their playoff chances with a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday for a second straight win. 

“I was very proud of the way we came out,” Islanders head coach Patrick Roy said. “We had a lot of chances at the beginning of the game and we could not score, but we didn't change our game. We played the same way, we stayed with the plan, and even in the second we had a lot of chances. ... And then in the third it came through.

"I mean, it was an important game for us. And we all knew it.”
 

Despite trading winger Jake Guentzel at the deadline, the Penguins continue to linger in the fight for the final wild-card spot with four wins in their past five games, with a point in their lone loss. Pittsburgh rallied to score five straight third-period goals against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday to earn 6-3 win after trailing 3-1. 

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby chalked up the rally to "desperation" as the team found their legs late after a 5-2 win against the New York Rangers on Monday.

“I thought it was a gutsy effort by our guys,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “We could tell early on we didn’t have a lot of energy. We just didn’t have a lot of juice tonight. It was one of those nights where sometimes you play against the schedule. That game last night in New York took a lot out of our guys.

“I give our players a lot of credit. We hung in there and we dug in.”

The Penguins face a likely must-win matchup on Thursday when they visit the Capitals in a game all teams in the hunt will have their eyes on. It's the last meeting of the year between the two teams, with Washington owning a 2-1 advantage in the season series so far. 

“I think our guys are excited because we're playing meaningful hockey, and we're trying to give ourselves a chance, we're trying to stay in the fight,” Sullivan added. “As I've said to them, anything can happen. Let's just focus on the one game in front of us. Let's try to take care of business each and every night and see where it goes.”

For Crosby, who added two goals Tuesday to bring his season total to 39 goals and 84 points in 75 games, the postseason appears back within reach after Pittsburgh missed out last year for the first time since his rookie season in 2005-06.

“Yeah, just keep doing what we're doing, I think that's the message,” Crosby said. “I think that we feel like we've done some good things, we're working hard, everybody's contributing – especially at a big time of year like this, that's what you need.

"So, just try to continue the momentum here.”