At this time last year, the Washington Capitals were comfortably on top of the Southeast Division, cruising toward the playoffs and getting ready for what they hoped would be a deep playoff run.
That run didn't pan out, and one year later, the Caps are now simply fighting for their playoff lives. That battle continues Thursday night as Washington hosts one of the teams that they're competing with for a spot in the postseason - the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"It's a must win for both teams," Capitals head coach Dale Hunter said Thursday. "It's kind of a playoff atmosphere on the ice."
Washington currently sits third in the hyper-competitive Southeast behind division-leading Florida and the Winnipeg Jets, who occupy the Eastern Conference's 8th and final playoff spot.
The Capitals, with 70 points, and Tampa, with 68, sit two and four points behind Winnipeg.
"This is a huge game," center Jay Beagle said. "We can't let teams get ahead of us because we're pushing for that spot."
As ProHockeyTalk.com points out, Thursday's game starts a two-week stretch of pivotal games for the Capitals, two of which are against division rivals and four against teams currently occupying playoff spots.
Meanwhile, six of the eight games the Capitals will play during this stretch. The Capitals have won just 11 of their 32 games away from Verizon Center this year.