The Washington Capitals seem to have finally hit their stride over the last week, but their new found stability may have come a bit too late in the 2013-14 campaign.
With only 11 games remaining before their regular season comes to an end, the Caps find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to postseason potential. The team currently sits 10th place in the Eastern Conference and 5th in the Metropolitan Division with 77 points, one shy of tying the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final wild card spot. However, for Washington to successfully take ownership of any of the eight available playoff positions, they will need to do so in an undoubtedly convincing fashion.
In the event of a tiebreaker, the National Hockey League looks to a team’s total accumulation of regulation-overtime wins. Unfortunately, the Capitals have not managed to make that aspect of their game a strong point this year. Their 25 non-shootout wins are fifth worst in the conference putting them at a huge disadvantage to all four of the teams they are currently chasing in the standings (Toronto, Columbus, Detroit, and the Rangers).
This is extremely disappointing simply because of the fact that this Caps team has yet to play to the best of their ability this season. From the very beginning, Washington has been plagued with key injuries to essential personnel throughout their lineup. These include players such as defensemen Jack Hillen (fractured tibial plateau), John Erskine (shoulder/knee), and Mike Green (concussion) as well as forwards Brooks Laich (groin), Mikhail Grabovski (ankle), and even Alex Ovechkin (upper/lower-body).
As a result, head coach Adam Oates was forced to constantly juggle his entire roster on a regular basis. Ultimately, this led to a very dysfunctional and disjointed team that struggled to find any sort of consistent chemistry with one another.
While the entire team as a whole has become discombobulated, this lack of uniformity is most easily noticeable on the back end. To say that the Capitals’ blue line has been seemingly atrocious this season would be a vast understatement. From failing to successfully track opposing forwards to their infuriating inability to clear their own zone, this Washington team has displayed one of its worst defensive efforts in recent history.
What is the primary cause for their lackluster performance this year? It’s simple – a sheer absence of experience. To this point in the season, the Caps have dressed 13 different defensemen in hopes of finding the magic combination to cure their worrisome defensive woes, many of which have been recalled from their AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Despite the fact that it now appears the Capitals have found a lineup that works (Carlson/Alzner, Green/Hillen, Orlov/Wey), all of the mixing and matching that previously went on resulted in a weak, unpolished blue line that was unmercifully picked apart and preyed upon over the course of the already-played 71 games.
There is no way to know for certain just how many points were given away by the Caps as a direct consequence of sub-par defense, but coming from someone who has watched each and every game, minute for minute, I can confidently say it’s been, at the very least, 10. Given their current situation in the playoff race, that’s a stark reality for Washington fans to face, but it couldn’t be any more accurate.
Nevertheless, a faint heartbeat remains at the core of the Capitals’ organization. After letting two separate home-and-home series against division rivals (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) get away from them, the Caps have gone on a 3-0-1 stretch allowing them to make up a decent amount of ground on the teams they’re currently trailing. The addition of two newly acquired forwards, Stanley Cup winner Dustin Penner and recently signed top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, has injected the team with a much-needed spark that hadn’t been present for a number of weeks prior. Meanwhile, a deadline trade that brought veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak into the picture has provided a calming reliability between the pipes as young gun Braden Holtby has had an immense amount of difficulty finding his game this season. Yet, as promising as this rejuvenated team looks, the Caps may have very well dug themselves into a hole that they simply don’t have enough time to climb back out of.
As they prepare to wrap up their California road trip Saturday night in San Jose, Washington understands the monumentally tough journey they have ahead of them if they hope to make the playoffs this spring, and only time will tell if saving their best hockey for now will eventually be their downfall.
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