Monday night in Carolina appeared to be a must win for the Caps as the team tries to stay in the battle for the Southeast Division title and a playoff spot. With Mike Green set to play his second game after returning in Tampa on Saturday night there certainly was cause for optimism.
Boy did that go out the window quickly!
Roman Hamrlik took a stupid elbowing penalty then Tomas Vokoun gave up a huge rebound goal just 3:41 into the contest. 88 seconds later Marcus Johansson made a horrible turnover at the Caps blue line and the puck ended up in the back of Washington’s net. Dale Hunter yanked Vokoun in favor of Michal Neuvirth but the team continued to struggle with only #30 keeping it close as long as he could.
Then when Alexander Ovechkin turned the puck over in the offensive zone the Hurricanes received another odd man rush and they buried it with just 30 seconds left in the opening frame. Things would get worse in period two when Washington received a power play as Johansson made another gaffe by blindly throwing the puck to Dennis Wideman at the point and Eric Staal collected the biscuit to score on a breakaway. Game over.
It was about as ugly as it could get in this one as the Caps repeatedly turned the puck over in their own end and looked totally out of snyc. They could not defend an odd man rush successfully and when they received them they struggled to get quality chances. Simply put, this team is falling apart when they need to be winning games in a tight playoff race.
For over two years the team has struggled up the middle of the ice since Sergei Fedorov left after the 2008-09 season. In 2010 and 2011 they brought in Eric Belanger and Jason Arnott, respectively, at the trade deadline to try and fill that hole. Last season the Arnott acquisition showed how much of a difference adding that component makes as the Capitals caught fire down the stretch to grab the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately last year’s #44 injured his knee and his effectiveness tailed off as the post season progressed.
Last summer GM George McPhee made several moves that looked very positive towards helping Washington get over the playoff hump. However, he was unable to land a second line center putting the pressure on Brooks Laich and Johansson to produce behind Nicklas Backstrom. With Backstrom now missing his 21st straight game due to a concussion, the gap up the middle of the ice is getting nearly impossible to overcome. Laich’s recent knee injury only magnified that deficiency as #21 is unable to center one of the top two lines while banged up. It is a major reason why the Capitals have not won two straight games in over a month.
So what does McPhee and Coach Dale Hunter do now? The NHL trade deadline is just a week away (Monday, February 27th at 3 pm). Hunter can only shuffle lines so much and Vokoun, who was playing very well coming into this tilt, can only bail out the club so often. Just a week ago McPhee said he felt that if Backstrom could come back this season that he thinks the team is a Stanley Cup contender. Their play on the ice says otherwise. However, if he could get a decent center in a trade, say a guy like Derick Brassard from Columbus, would that be enough to allow the Caps to sneak into the post season either via a division title or by passing a team like Toronto?
That is a question that McPhee will have to think long and hard about the next six plus days. He has two number one draft picks and a second rounder in what is reportedly a very good draft this June. Does he move any of them for a forward to try and win this season? After all he has 2010 first round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov pretty much ready to play in the NHL next season. Kuzy looks to be a bonafide top six forward, but is he a center?
Much of what McPhee does also hinges on the prospects of Backstrom getting healthy because without him, let’s face it, this team can’t go deep in the playoffs, even if the GM adds another center.
One thing is for certain, the Caps were horrible on Monday night and they had no confidence on the ice the entire game. If the Capitals next three games before the trade deadline (at Ottawa, home against Montreal, and at Toronto) go anything like they did in Carolina, then the GM should probably start playing for next season.