LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals ended their amazing late-season run on a down note last night.
Over the past three weeks, Washington had charged through the Eastern Conference despite a string of injuries that has sidelined nine of its key players.
It arrived in this game, with a possible fourth- or fifth-place finish within reach, thanks to the Boston Bruins' loss yesterday afternoon and the Montreal Canadiens' 5-5 tie against the New York Islanders last night.
All the Caps had to do was beat the Buffalo Sabres.
Instead, Washington lost to the Sabres, 3-2, and now can finish no higher than sixth and will finish eighth if Tampa Bay beats Philadelphia today and Boston ties or beats Pittsburgh.
Washington, which finished the regular season 39-32-11, would finish seventh if either Tampa Bay or Boston loses.
"It's a tough loss," said Washington goalie Jim Carey, whose team led 1-0 on a goal by Peter Bondra at the end of two periods. "We wanted to win it. But Jersey was a tough loss. Pittsburgh was a tough loss. You can't just pinpoint this one game and say we blew it here. We blew it in Pittsburgh, we blew it against New Jersey and we blew it in Colorado in the 20th game of the season. . . . It's an 82-game season and I'm not going to blame this game for not getting home ice.
"I'm going to blame the 30 losses we had and shouldn't have had. But there were games we won where we shouldn't have won. There were games we got lucky. It all evens out."
The good thing for Washington, said Carey, is that the Capitals, who went 6-1-3 before losing the final two games, are in the playoffs.
"We're going to look at winning four of the next seven games for another two months," he said. "We have no control over who we're playing, so I couldn't pick a team. It doesn't matter. We have to beat whoever we face."
But Washington, which will face Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or the New York Rangers in the first round, learned last night that a hard task will be even harder. Stalwart defenseman Joe Reekie, who was initially diagnosed as having a bruised left foot, is out three to five weeks with a broken foot. The break was revealed in a magnetic resonance imaging test yesterday.
"Not to make a pun," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld, with only a wisp of a smile, "but it's a pretty bad break for us. We'll have to get to the second round before we have any hope of getting any of our injured players back."
Last night, the Capitals could have used some of their big defensemen -- Reekie, Calle Johansson or Brendan Witt, all injured -- as the Sabres rallied on goals by former Capital Randy Burridge, Brent Hughes and Pat LaFontaine, who scored the game-winner with 4: 33 to play on a power play.
LaFontaine's goal wiped out the momentary joy brought by a short-handed goal by Kelly Miller that tied the game 2-2 just 59 seconds earlier.
"Unfortunately, we were in a tough position to begin with," said Miller. "It would've been nice to play a little bit better earlier, get some power-play goals. It would have been a different game."
Schoenfeld said his team got outworked, though he hedged his unhappiness.
"There are a few guys who are playing on borrowed energy," Schoenfeld said. "That's just unfortunate at this time of the season. There were some who didn't push themselves to find out if they had any energy to borrow from.
"We'll take tomorrow off, get rested and then get ready to go into the playoffs."
Pub Date: 4/14/96