No margin of error as Leafs host Capitals
The Toronto Maple Leafs' margin for error is down to zero.
In order to qualify for the playoffs, they must win their three remaining games in regulation or overtime and have Buffalo fail to record a point in any of its three games.
If either scenario fails to play out, Toronto's playoff drought will reach a franchise-record six seasons.
The playoff push could end as soon as Tuesday night with the Maple Leafs hosting Washington at Air Canada Centre. Buffalo is home to Tampa Bay.
Eastern Conference Race
|7. NY Rangers||80||91||2|
Toronto's playoff hopes took a big hit Monday night when the New York Rangers erased a three-goal deficit and beat the Boston Bruins 5-3.
That put the Rangers out of reach for the Leafs and ensured the highest they can finish in the Eastern Conference is eighth.
The team can't even afford to win another game in a shootout. The NHL's tiebreaking format was altered this season to include only wins in regulation and overtime and Toronto needs three more of those to match Buffalo in the standings.
The Leafs have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL since the all-star break, going 18-7-5 heading into Tuesday's game.
Toronto (37-32-10) is 10th in the conference standings and defeated Ottawa 4-2 on the road Saturday night for its sixth win in seven games.
The Leafs are six points behind eighth-place Buffalo for the final playoff spot in the East, but could potentially hold the tiebreaker over the Sabres. Both teams have three games remaining.
"We've just got to keep winning games," said Leafs centre Tyler Bozak, who scored the winning goal Saturday.
"We're focused on winning in our room and we believe we can, so we've got three big ones coming up."
Toronto, which closes out its season with matchups against New Jersey and Montreal, is 3-1-0 in its last four at home, despite going 0-12 on the power play.
James Reimer made 23 saves Saturday and has gone 7-1-0 with one shutout and a 2.11 goals-against average in his last eight starts.
Forward Phil Kessel notched his team-leading 30th goal Saturday to extend his scoring streak to a season-best seven games.
Winning the Presidents' Trophy last year didn't help the offensive-minded Washington Capitals much come playoff time.
On the verge of clinching a fourth straight Southeast Division title, the Capitals will try for a 15th win in 18 games Tuesday night.
With an NHL-best 121 points and 3.8 goals per game last season, Washington (46-22-11) earned home ice throughout the post-season.
The Capitals, though, became the first No. 1 seed to blow a 3-1 series lead against a No. 8 and were eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
As a result, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau changed up the team's style of play to focus more on defense.
While Washington is averaging 1.1 goals less than it did last season, its 2.35 GAA ranks in the league's top five. The Capitals finished 16th in the NHL in 2009-10 with a 2.77 GAA.
Washington beat Buffalo 5-4 in overtime Saturday to move into a tie with Philadelphia atop the East with 103 points, but the Capitals don't own the tiebreaker since they have fewer regulation and overtime wins than the Flyers.
While Boudreau was pleased with the victory, he wasn't happy with the pace of the game.
"I thought it was way too close to looking like last year," he said. "We sort of have to buckle down."
Michal Neuvirth made 34 saves as Washington improved to just 5-8-3 when allowing at least four goals. Neuvirth has gone 8-1-0 in his last 10 starts overall, but he is 1-1-1 with a 4.43 GAA in three lifetime starts against Toronto.
"It's nice to score goals, and we want to score goals," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "But we don't want to get into 5-4 hockey games like we were last year where we have to score five goals to win."
Alexander Ovechkin, who scored the winning goal and tallied two assists Saturday, recorded a hat trick in a 4-1 win at Toronto on Jan. 22. He has recorded 11 goals and 11 assists over a nine-game point streak against the Leafs, helping his team to five wins, including two in three meetings this season.