LANDOVER -- Alan May figured the scoreboard had something to do with it. "We looked up and saw Philadelphia was losing and some of the guys didn't seem to play as hard after that," said the rough and ready winger of the Washington Capitals.
Coach Terry Murray said, "We came up flat. Mentally, we were ready, but the physical wasn't there."
Tim Bergland favored the old standby: "Everybody's trying to do it by themselves."
Goalie Mike Liut's assessment seemed the best. He cited a recognition problem.
There are a million excuses in a losing locker room . . . these are but a few of them.
And, in the final analysis, what the Caps' 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres last night ended up meaning is very little.
The situation as the evening commenced was a win coupled with a loss by the Flyers would have assured Washington's ninth straight trip to the playoffs. Philadelphia did its part, losing to Pittsburgh, 3-1, despite putting 49 shots on net.
A win also would have provided the Caps some breathing room over New Jersey. Instead, the two fell into a tie for third/fourth place in the Patrick Division when the Devils tied the Rangers, 3-3. It was not a heroic effort by Jersey as it blew a 3-0 second-period lead.
Sufficiently confused by now? No matter. Suffice it to say, come Sunday evening, everything will get straightened out and somebody will join the New York Islanders on vacation.
Prior to then, things figure to proceed in unfettered confusion as the Devils play Hartford tonight, the Caps visit Philly tomorrow and host Jersey Saturday while Pittsburgh and the Flyers are squaring off. Then . . . oh forget it!
How much easier it would have been had the Caps won.
For the 35th time, matching the number of losses his club has this see-saw season, Murray moaned, "We had chance after chance but just couldn't finish them off. We just didn't go at them like we've been going at other teams lately."
This was a mild understatement. From the middle of the second period to the middle of the third, the Caps didn't put so much as a shot on Buffalo goalie Daren Puppa. Making matters worse, they rarely invaded the Sabres' end of the ice.
"It's the Adams Division style of play, the guys had trouble recognizing it," noted Washington netminder Liut, who spent a few seasons in Hartford and knows of what he speaks. Give us more, oh masked one.
"Over there, they're on you in the neutral zone. They don't back up to their blue line and they force you to dump the puck in [to the offensive zone] whether you want to or not. They force a lot of turnovers at the red line and they're set up to attack out of the transition game."
Conversely, in the pile-driving Patrick, it's bite, scratch and maul in the corners, wrestle and grab in front of the net and fold, spindle and mutilate everywhere else. Speed and finesse vs. clutch, grab and grind. It's fortunate Washington isn't a regular member of the Adams Family, it's 3-10-1 against those guys.
To paraphrase a term from baseball, the Caps couldn't hit what they couldn't catch up to in this one.
They got the lead late in the first period when Dimitri Khristich beat Puppa from in close after some classy stick-handling. The advantage lasted just two minutes as Dave Andreychuk squared it with just 24 seconds remaining in the session.
"That hurt, giving up a goal that late, and sort of put us back on our heels," said Murray. But the dropoff in play didn't translate to the scoreboard. After a scoreless second period, Tony Tanti put Buffalo ahead for good a minute into the third period and, two minutes later, an ex-Cap, Grant Ledyard, made it 3-1. When he wore the red, white and blue, Grant couldn't put a puck on goal from the crease.
Similar to Sunday when they fell behind Boston, 3-1, and recovered for a tie, the Caps began a late push when Khristich scored again, beating both a defender and the goalie with a series of deft moves. It went for naught when Andreychuk finished the scoring with an excellent wraparound goal from the supine position.
While the Caps grumbled about their lost opportunity, forgotten was the fact that perhaps the Sabres had some motivation on their side. They're in the playoffs, but needed a win to all but assure third place and draw Montreal in the first round. That's the team they want, not division leader Boston.
Besides, being totally objective, the Sabres are a better team.
"We're lucky we've got three games left," said Bergland. Yeah, in Philly, home to the Devils and, yikes, in Buffalo Sunday. Best the Caps do something to decide the issue by then.