You hear it all the time from athletes, coaches and fans - talk of the proverbial “must-win” game. It’s almost always more figurative than literal, not to mention histrionic, and this is the time of the hockey year when you start hearing the term, with the trade deadline and post-season looming and teams confronting the realities of where the past four months have situated them.
Throughout the season, though, most teams (this year’s Washington Capitals among them) have a bunch of “should wins” and “probably shouldn’t wins” and the rest are coin flips, more or less. Of course, things don’t always go according to expectations - teams lose “should wins” all the time, and snag dubs against superior teams out of the ether as if by magic. Caps fans need look no further than last weekend for examples of both, as their mid-table team went into Boston and became only the second team all year to beat the Bruins in regulation at TD Garden, before returning home to lose to the fifth-worst team in the League.
There’s no need to recount the adversity the Caps have faced this year, particularly on the injury front, and now without their most important player for an indefinite period of time. The reality is the Caps are in an absolute dogfight for a playoff spot... and they’re going to be hard-pressed to get in.
Let’s set the table. Actually, let’s let Micah Blake McCurdy do it:
Caps juuuust on the high side of the bubble after the loss to San Jose. Thirty-four points from their final 27 games probably does the trick, just thirty and they probably miss. pic.twitter.com/VL2lrw4I0T— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) February 13, 2023
After not taking any points on Tuesday night at home against Carolina, the situation remains the same, with one less game to do it in: 30 more points and they have around a 1-in-3 chance to make the playoffs, 32 and that percentage flips to nearly 2-in-3. Razor thin margins.
So what lies ahead for Washington? Here’s their remaining schedule, with the last column showing teams below them in points percentage in red font and shaded from red to blue relative to the Caps’ .554 points percentage:
Fifteen of their remaining games are against teams below them in points percentage (and ten of those games are at home). Does that make these games “should wins”? Not necessarily. Eight of those games are against four of the five teams right below the Caps in points percentage (Buffalo, Detroit, the Islanders and Florida)... and are the Caps really a .554 team right now?
In other words, your mileage may vary as to what is a “should win.” But even if the Caps were to win all of their games against the teams below them in points percentage and lose (in regulation) to the teams above them, that’s 15 wins... 30 points... 1-in-3 chance at the playoffs.
Now, obviously the Caps won’t win all 15 of those games, just like they won’t lose all 11 of the matches in which they’ll be clear underdogs (maybe the Bruins and Devils are resting guys at the end of the season, maybe Darcy Kuemper goes on a heater, maybe they remember how to score more than two goals in a game and/or on the power play, etc.). But their room for error right now is nearly non-existent and the more they fumble away points, the more they’ll need to offset that with the improbable.
It’s almost like you can see the must-wins...