Sitting seven points out of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, the Ottawa Senators will likely play their final nine games for pride.
Players say that's reason enough to play your best, but there's a feeling around the Senators that this season slipped away.
After making an unbelievable second-half run last season, going 23-4-4 to earn a playoff berth after being 14 points back, the Senators figured to be back in the postseason this year.
"I thought this was the year that we were going to be able to take a step forward as a team and kind of grow off what we did last year to a degree," said forward Bobby Ryan. "I think everybody got a lot of good experience in that stretch and we weren't able to sustain it into this season and I don't know where that disconnect is. It's something that we're going to have to ponder and it's going to be a long season thinking about it."
Last year's playoff run was one of a kind. The Senators were unlikely to repeat it this year, and forward Zack Smith said they shouldn't have needed to.
"It almost seemed that ever since January it felt like people, media, were implying that we needed to go on this run like we did last year and looking back that wasn't the case at all," said Smith. "We didn't need to go 32-of-36 to make the playoffs. It's frustrating looking back to see there's a few games here or there that we let go and if we got those points we'd be right in the mix right now.
"It's disappointing to look back to see the odd game that we kind of gave away or the work ethic wasn't there which is probably the biggest frustration."
Inconsistency was a common theme this season for the Senators (34-31-8). Their longest winning streak was four games, which only happened twice, and the rest of the year they never managed to win more than two games at a time.
"If you end up missing the playoffs by two points you think about a lot of different games that you let slip away to teams that aren't quite up there," said Ryan. "We've consistently, I think, played up to the level and down to the level and that's the mark of a team that's not going to be able to go late into May and early June."
Mathematically, the Senators aren't out of the playoffs and until told otherwise they will continue to play with the mindset that they have a chance. But they know they'll need to be at their best every single game, and even then that might not be enough.
Tuesday night the Senators face the league-leading Washington Capitals (51-15-5), who beat Ottawa 7-1 in their last meeting Jan. 10.
"The motivation level should be there from everybody in this group, otherwise it won't be a pretty night," said defenceman Marc Methot. "We're going to have to have one of our better games of the season and hopefully put on a good show."
The Senators are coming off a 5-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens where they scored three short-handed goals, but their power play continues to struggle. They haven't scored with the man advantage in the past nine games, going 0-for-23.
"We have to be better," said coach Dave Cameron. "We practice it, we work on it, we discuss it, but you have to execute it."
Notes: G Craig Anderson will get the start for the Senators Tuesday night. D Patrick Wiercioch isn't expected to play in any of the three games this week as he deals with an upper body injury. LW Clarke MacArthur is getting closer to returning from a concussion and is hopeful to play before the end of the season.