What a silly question: of course the ship will right for the Washington Capitals and they’ll show up — but “when,” is the real question. As the Caps hit the 41-game halfway point of the season, they stand at 22-17-2, sitting at 8th place in the Eastern Conference with 46 points after a 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Both teams came limping into Wednesday’s match and it showed for the first two periods, as neither team could keep sustained pressure on the other. Jason Chimera got lucky on a good breakout, scoring the lone tally for the night in the first period. Of course, though, the Caps would have to thank Tomas Vokoun for standing on his head to keep Washington with the lead. Not much happened until the third when the Caps would turn on a little bit of offense, as the top line mustered a few chances. They didn’t get anything else on the scoreboard, but they held on to the lead, taking advantage of the wounded Penguins on home ice to begin their four-game homestand with a win.
Before defeating the Penguins, the Caps failed miserably against the Kings. The game started better than the 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, but the result ended the same way. After Marcus Johansson scored the first goal of the game very early on, the Kings went on to get five unanswered lamp-lighters and dominated the play for the rest of the game. Johansson’s second goal of the game came late to make the score slightly more respectable, but it was too late to forge a real comeback, losing 5-2 again.
Most of the team’s struggles have come on the road (7-12-1 away from Verizon). However, more recently, the Caps’ poor showing on the road comes as a bit of a surprise to some, considering the loss in San Jose snapped a four-game win streak — the longest since the seven-game win streak to start the year.
Prior to the road trip, the Caps returned home from a 4-2 Buffalo loss and defeated the Rangers and the Sabres at home — the two teams that gave Washington the hardest time in head-to-head matchups. The Capitals went on the road for New Year’s Eve to play the Blue Jackets, coming up with a valiant comeback effort and exploding for four goals before heading back to D.C. for a solid 3-1 win.
During the win-streak, Alex Ovechkin was on a tear, rolling through a seven-game point streak, scoring seven goals and tallying three assists. Mike Green even returned after being out for almost two full months with a groin injury. Vokoun was on top of his game and starting to prove why the Caps named him the No. 1 goaltender. Even Alex Semin was in on the action, with three goals and two assists and avoiding the penalty box at bad times. Essentially, the Capitals fooled audiences into thinking they were back to form.
In order for Washington to be “back to form” to be able to pick up points they are missing on the road is huge. Right now, the Caps’ 46 points are behind the Ottawa Senators (52 points) and the Florida Panthers are still ahead with 50 points as well, leading the Southeast Division. This will come tough, as Mike Green, once again, will be out for an extended period of time, and no one is quite sure on how long Nicklas Backstrom will be out due to a head injury.
So how do you deal with all of this? The Caps, since Backstrom has been out, have had their center situation exposed, much like last year. Aside from Johansson, there are really few options to battle the missing center spot then on the second line.
Not only is the lack of depth at center an issue, but lately scoring depth in general is a problem for the team and can ultimately hurt the production of Ovechkin. The way Ovechkin has played lately has been promising and as long as he is on, then the team will be on. According to Chuck Gormley of CSN Washington, the Capitals are 19-5-1 in 25 games where Ovechkin has had at least a point. When Ovechkin has not recorded a point, which has been in 15 games this season, the Caps are 2-12-1. Even though the Caps beat the Penguins and are now 3-12-1 without Ovechkin’s contributions on the scoreboard, Washington will still need their captain and top star to be involved to win. It is a two-way street to make this happen. This aspect is also highly affected by Backstrom’s injury, as it is tough to tell if the team has adequate linemates to help Ovechkin maintain his game.
In other words, with these issues regarding center and scoring depth in mind, General Manager George McPhee has some work to do. Wednesday’s 1-0 victory was rough to watch. It might not be the worst idea to bring in a player who hasn’t been bogged down with Washington’s season-long drama to change the dynamic. Either way, there is time to build up current players’ values. There is that second first-round draft pick that was acquired in the Semyon Varlamov trade to the Colorado Avalanche and few prospects that the Caps can afford to give away (eg. Cody Eakin). There are pieces McPhee and the Capitals can use for trade bait before next month’s deadline to give Washington that extra boost to play like the dangerous team they were expected to be.
Since Dale Hunter has taken over, the Caps are now 10-8-1. There is still plenty of time to fix things before the playoffs and get used to changing systems. Still, the Caps are barely back in the playoff hunt and could very easily be back on the outside, looking in. In order to remain relevant as a contender, ultimately, the coaching has been beneficial for the team, and now it is up to the players and its general manager to make the next steps toward success.