For about a month, Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter has said that his team is playing "playoff hockey." Sunday, Hunter compared the Caps' upcoming game against the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday to "the seventh game of the playoffs." Considering the Caps' playoff history, perhaps saying that was not a good idea.
The Caps, more often than not, have failed to deliver when the stakes are high throughout their history. Washington is 2-7 all-time in Game 7s (coincidentally, Hunter scored the series-winning overtime goal in the 1988 Patrick Division Semifinals to give the Caps their first-such win). Recently, the Caps have failed to put away the Winnipeg Jets, one of their fellow competitiors for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, twice within the last month in games they considered "must-win."
Tuesday's game against the Sabres is not just a "must-win;" it is arguably the biggest regular season game at Verizon Center since April 2008, when the Caps clinched a playoff berth and Southeast Division championship on the final night of the season against the Florida Panthers. Washington and Buffalo are tied with 84 points, but the former holds the eighth spot due to a tiebreaker.
A win could solidify the Caps as playoff competitors, while a loss will rob them of the chance to fully control their destiny. The same question that has surrounded the Caps for years fits Tuesday: Will they finally break through and prove their doubters wrong, or will they once again crumble under the enormous pressure surrounding them? Tuesday's game will not be one to be missed.
Adam Vingan is co-founder and editor of Kings Of Leonsis, a Caps-centric blog, and is the Capitals Editor for SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter @Adam_KOL and e-mail your story ideas to adamvingan (at) gmail.com.