The Washington Capitals clinched a playoff berth last Thursday night after their overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Reaching the postseason early is relieving, even in defeat. However, when that loss starts a mini-streak of similar results, the team needs to fix some flaws before those issues mean the end of their season.
Capitals Suffer Two-Game Skid Against Pittsburgh
Losing to rival Pittsburgh has been a trend this season for the Capitals, and the same is true for their season series against the New York Rangers. In head-to-head matchups this season, Washington is 2-2-4 and 2-5 versus the Penguins and Rangers, respectively. After dropping two straight to Pittsburgh, the Capitals must face New York twice beginning tonight.
One reassuring note to the team’s losses against Pittsburgh is that most of them came in overtime. The Capitals at least received points in those games, which contributes to why the MassMutual East division race is still very close. However, points don’t matter in the Stanley Cup playoffs. An overtime loss is a loss and one step closer to booking summer tee times – it’s that simple.
The unfortunate note is that this current skid came directly after a three-game sweep over the New York Islanders. The victories not only kept the Capitals at the top of the division but gave them an extreme amount of confidence and momentum from handling a tough squad that is also playoff-bound. Perhaps it wasn’t Washington’s great play, but rather the Islanders’ poor performance that should be the main focus of those games.
The good news is that the Capitals have already made the playoffs—and they have five games left to regroup.
Caps’ Remaining Opponents
Tonight, the Capitals must avoid faltering once again against the Rangers. Given, New York is holding on to innocent daydreams of catching the Boston Bruins for the last playoff seed awarded in the East, so they still have something to fight for while Washington is essentially practicing. However, the Capitals need to still play with urgency.
Of their remaining five games, Washington plays the Rangers twice, the Philadelphia Flyers twice, and the Bruins in the regular-season finale. The Capitals have dominated the Flyers, with a 5-1 record this year, and could even their tight season series with the Bruins on May 11. Winning at those last three games in a row will go a long way.
The Capitals have played one less game than the Penguins, and seeding is still something very important to consider. Of the three teams that are destined to represent the East in the postseason, Washington would greatly accept a first-round series against the Islanders, so perhaps the two-seed isn’t the worst spot to stay put in. Also, Pittsburgh has struggled against Boston this season, posting a 3-4-1 record.
Though every team is dangerous in the playoffs, with a favorable first-round matchup and the possibility of the Penguins being ousted early, specific seeding is definitely something to consider. On the other hand, only one point separates the Islanders and Bruins, and the teams will face each other in a key contest on May 10. If Boston jumps New York for the three-seed, then the Capitals should be eyeing the division crown to weigh the scales in their favor.
The truth is, however, Washington should be prepared for anyone, and that starts with fixing the minor issues that have affected their play of late.
Get Healthy and Get Going
There isn’t much the Capitals need to fix. They have played fairly well under first-year head coach Peter Laviolette’s system—especially of late. The first issue is health. Alexander Ovechkin needs to return from injury. The captain sustained a lower-body injury versus the Islanders on April 22. In addition, John Carlson, also suffering from a lower-body injury, missed both losses against Pittsburgh. Yet, durability for both skaters have never been in question. Thursday marked the first time since 2016 Ovechkin and Carlson missed the same game, and that was because they were both healthy scratches to rest during the final game of the season (from ‘With Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson out, Tom Wilson joins Caps’ leadership group,’ Washington Post, 05/02/21).
Ovechkin’s return will assumingly coincide with the power play finding its dominance once again. In their last five games, including their 1-0 victory in which Ovechkin was forced to leave early, Washington’s power play is 1-for-12. Ovechkin has 17 power-play points this year (nine goals, eight assists), and Carlson has added 15 extra-man points (three goals, 12 assists).
Also, in regard to the offense, Anthony Mantha has cooled off since the blockbuster trade with Detroit, making Detroit general manager Steve Yzerman seem even more of a genius than originally boasted. The winger has just one point in his last three games after accumulating six points in his first six games with Washington. Meanwhile, Jakub Vrana has six points (five goals, one assist) in nine games as a Red Wing.
Lastly, the blue line needs to be more consistent. Against the Islanders, the Capitals only let in three goals over three games, but the Penguins scored eight during Carlson’s two-game absence. Trevor van Riemsdyk generated the most ice time since Carlson has been out, playing 39:32 between both games versus Pittsburgh while paired with Brenden Dillon. Since it was announced in October that Michal Kempny would miss the season due to Achilles surgery, extra defensive help has been something Washington has dealt with all year.
If the Capitals get healthy, re-discover their power play prowess and Mantha’s talents, and get solid defensive support, they will be a force in the playoffs. They have just five games to figure it out, however.
May 3: Washington at New York Rangers, 7 p.m. ET
May 5: Washington at New York Rangers, 7 p.m. ET
May 7: Philadelphia at Washington, 7 p.m. ET
May 8: Philadelphia at Washington, 7 p.m. ET
May 11: Boston at Washington, 7 p.m. ET