Heading into the weekend the Washington Capitals were riding a three game winning streak after victories over the Canadiens, Leafs, and Islanders. On the docket were the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, two clubs fairly firmly entrenched in the top eight of the Eastern Conference. With both games at home, a place where the Caps have a good record, these tilts seemed to be a prime indicator of whether or not Washington could move up the standings to make a strong push for a playoff position.
With the results now in, it is apparent the Capitals are in big trouble after 5-0 and 1-0 defeats at the Verizon Center. Washington is now in 9th place, just a point behind Winnipeg and the Caps have a game in hand, but when you don’t score you can’t win. In addition, Tampa Bay has caught fire and now trail the Caps by just a point. Buffalo is also a single point behind and the Leafs and Islanders are two and four, respectively. To quote an old Far Side cartoon, “WARNING: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.”
With Steven Stamkos pouring in the goals (now at 47 and counting) and the Caps struggling to score, it is pretty apparent that with each passing game this club is getting closer to golfing come April 9th. It has been well chronicled here in this blog that the Capitals have big problems up the middle of the ice that have been magnified by the injury to Nicklas Backstrom. On Friday against New Jersey that could not have been more evident as smaller forwards Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson, and Keith Aucoin made gaffes that led to Devils tallies. When Dale Hunter is forced to play numbers 85 and 90 for 35 plus minutes a game there is little margin for error for the Caps to get a victory. Both are smaller centers and no NHL defensemen is going to be afraid of being hit by them when they are moving the puck out of their own end. Thus the Caps receive fewer o-zone turnovers and have to work harder to get the puck back when those guys are on the ice. In addition, their size makes it difficult for them in defensive zone coverage. Johansson and Perreault have roles, but the ones they are being asked to fill now are simply too much for their abilities.
On Sunday night, Johansson’s man tipped the puck home for the only tally, although in fairness to number 90, Alexander Ovechkin lolligagged it out to the point allowing Pavel Kubina to find Eric Wellwood in front for the re-direct. The Gr8 would pay for that lack of effort and sit most of the remainder of the second period. In the third period he appeared to take Hunter’s message in the right way and was a force. Unfortunately when he has no true offensive center it is easy for the defense to cover him and he was blanked along with his teammates. Ovechkin did have several quality chances in that final frame, but he needs to play like that every shift from here on out if Washington wants to make the post season.
Michal Neuvirth, who might not have started had Tomas Vokoun been healthy (day to day), was excellent in goal and the Wellwood tally couldn’t be hung on him. But the margin of error for the Caps is so small right now so Neuvy gets another loss when he deserved better.
There is no way around this right now, the Caps are a flawed team and that is made worse with Nicklas Backstrom out. Too much is being asked of Johansson and Perreault due to the lack of depth at center. What makes things even worse is that Ovechkin has been unable to regain his dominant form from the pre 2010 Olympic break. The Gr8 has not been so great and the Capitals need him to be to make the playoffs. He needs to do whatever he can to change things on and off the ice so that when he plays these last 17 games he is highly effective. Great players find ways to adjust their game and get better. Larry Bird used to talk about developing a new move every offseason because he knew teams would adjust to what he was doing previously. Defenses have figured out how to slow Ovechkin down. Some of that is on the personnel around him, but most of it falls squarely on #8. He needs to reach down deep and do whatever he can to change things down the stretch, otherwise he is going to hear criticism like he’s never heard before, and many of it coming from the local area for perhaps the first time in his career.
Notes: Despite Sunday’s loss Jay Beagle, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, Jason Chimera, Mike Knuble, and John Carlson played their rears off but the team just can’t finish right now…Ilya Bryzgalov made 34 saves for the Flyers in the Sunday shutout….the Caps play Carolina on Tuesday and Tampa on Thursday at the Verizon Center. Pretty safe to say they need to win both games otherwise you can cue up ”Trouble” by Lindsey Buckingham.