The Washington Capitals, who continue to play without Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green plus are going with a banged up Brooks Laich, did a lot of good things in a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers today at Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts have the best record in the NHL right now but they were barely able to hang on against a Caps team that is not even close to full strength. There is some comfort in the thought that if Washington were to get healthy they’d easily dispatch the team they ran out of the playoffs last spring once again, but moral victories really aren’t meaning much these days because the margin for error for the Caps is getting smaller.
The Capitals are currently sitting in 9th place, a point out of the playoffs, and after Monday night’s tough home tilt against the San Jose Sharks, they play four games on the road. Washington trails the Leafs in 8th by a point and have a game in hand while they are three points back of Ottawa in 7th with three games in hand. In addition, they are four points back of Southeast Division leading Florida, who occupy the third seed right now. All of those teams are well within reach but that only happens if the Caps stop making critical mistakes, start finishing more of their chances, and win more games.
Backstrom doesn’t appear to be coming back any time soon, Green might return later in the month, and when Laich only logs 12 minutes in an important game you know he isn’t close to 100% either. So Dale Hunter’s team needs to “pull up their socks” and start playing better. On Sunday they made a horrible defensive zone giveaway that led to poor positioning and an easy Ryan Callahan goal that gave New York a 1-0 lead after Washington had carried much of the play. That type of mistake is a killer and puts an offensively challenged team behind the eight ball quickly.
The Caps did battle back getting a sweet goal from Alexander Semin after Jason Chimera used his speed against a slow Rangers defense to open up a lane for 28 to unleash his deadly shot. However, they gave the lead back with another sequence where they went running around in their own end. Troy Brouwer eventually left his skates, something you only want to do as a last resort on defense, and that allowed Ryan McDonagh to beat Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) under the right arm.
When your lineup is missing key players, special teams become even more important and Washington cost themselves the game with their struggling power play in the third period. Trailing 2-1 with over 13 minutes left Alexander Ovechkin, John Carlson, and Mathieu Perreault all made bad decisions and as a result, the Rangers received a two on one break and Brandon Prust, who rarely scores, netted the eventual game winner (Carlson would score late to give the Caps a chance). Those mistakes, which were also the result of guys trying to do too much individually, were backbreakers and ultimately cost the Caps from getting at least a point, something they sorely need right now.
Ovechkin certainly didn’t have one of his better games and he should have been using his speed and power to get around an over rated Rangers defense more often. Instead the Gr8 seemed to battle a terrible ice surface and the puck all afternoon. The Caps need their star player to step up and carry this team right now if they are going to make the playoffs. He has to find ways to get more shots on goal and help his teammates be better. That did not happen against New York on Sunday. In his defense, a winger needs a playmaking center to get him the puck and he doesn’t have that with Backstrom out. Marcus Johansson has a bright future but he is being asked to do a lot in just his second year in the league. Perhaps Hunter might want to put Ovechkin back with Perreault and Semin to generate more offense because those are the two other most skilled offensive players in the lineup at this juncture?
Whatever Hunter decides to do, he needs to get this team playing better hockey quickly before they fall too far behind the teams they are chasing. They don’t have the skill to overcome in game lapses like they’ve been able to do in the past so the number of breakdowns on defense must decrease. In addition, the power play has to be better. Simply put, this team has to start being more efficient or they might find themselves golfing come mid-April. The margin for error is that small in a crowded Eastern Conference race.
Notes: The Rangers crushed the Caps at the faceoff dot, 31-19…Neuvirth got the start today due to Tomas Vokoun being sick. #30 was not the reason Washington lost, he had no chance on goals 1 and 3…the Caps hit at least three posts, by my count, so if it weren’t for bad luck lately they’d have no luck at all…Mike Knuble and Jeff Schultz were the Capitals scratches.