Capitals’ Playoff Chances Hinge on Strong March Performance

The Washington Capitals need a great March because April is going to be brutal. The team is currently in the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings 10 and 13 points behind, respectively.

The team has avoided panic long enough. Goaltending, Anthony Mantha’s return, and maybe a locker room epiphany, need to have an impact if there’s any chance of salvaging some sort of momentum entering the postseason – if they even get that far. Last night’s 4-0 win against the Carolina Hurricanes certainly helps.

Capitals Must Find New Life in March

Back to February. Tuesday’s loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs was just the bitter end to yet another poor month. Frankly, panic should have set when the Capitals lost to the lowly Philadelphia Flyers last Saturday days after being handled by the New York Rangers.

Related: Capitals Are Overly Dependent on Scoring First Goal

10 points may seem like a decent cushion with 28 games remaining, but it’s not. Since the start of 2022, the Capitals have been one of the worst teams in the league, while the Blue Jackets have played well, especially of late. They are 7-3-0 in their last 10.

To put it bluntly, the Capitals are a bad team right now despite Thursday night’s win, so fans should be cautious of March bringing instant hope. It’s a month that is said to bring new life, at least. However, a turnaround can only happen if a trade is made, maybe even two or three, because the team has been playing poorly for so long that if a positive shift in performance was going to happen, it would have happened by now.

Management should be wary, however, because a couple of pieces still may not be sufficient to provide substantial relief to Capitals’ struggles. They can’t sell the system just to lose in the first round of the playoffs again.

Capitals Goaltending Struggles

Ilya Samsonov has essentially played his way out of D.C. He was pulled against the Maple Leafs after giving up three goals on 10 shots, forcing a rusty, assumingly not 100% healthy, Vitek Vanecek to play in relief. Samsonov has been solid in stages, especially when he became the primary starter while Vanecek was on injured reserve, but he just wasn’t solid enough to prove he could carry the team this season and into the future, and it felt like this was his last opportunity.

Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Vanecek responded beyond expectations in his first start after his recovery, saving all 36 shots in Thursday’s shutout victory.

Mantha’s Return Will Help

Mantha played his first game since undergoing shoulder surgery late last year. He skated for 16:13 last night and finished with a plus-1 rating. If Mantha can get back to producing, then management may not need to pursue a forward. He may not have an instant impact, but he could breathe some new life into the team this month, which will be about finding his skates, and could mean less trade action at the deadline. It appears the front office would rather have a quiet deadline with a less aggressive approach this go-around.

Anthony Mantha, Washington Capitals
Anthony Mantha, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

General manager Brian Maclellan has been more focused on the goaltending if anything, saying, “I think it’s got to be an obvious upgrade for us for it to make sense, or otherwise we go with our guys. … I don’t know if there’s that many guys that are out there that are quality, you know — there might be one or two.”  

Time for Capitals to Turn It Around

March is off to a good start, and though it has only been four days, February is already a distant bad memory – just like January. A healthy Vanecek and Mantha may be the in-house answer to the team’s issues. Remember, this team was very good to start the season, and both those players contributed to that dominance.

Related: Capitals Must Answer Key Questions Before 2022 Trade Deadline

Just as there was no reason to panic, there’s also no reason to believe that last night’s convincing win has turned the team around. The panic was pushed aside until it became legitimate. Capitals fans should hope the process repeats itself in regard to optimism and in time for the playoffs.

Perhaps the answer is in-house, and not just from an on-ice perspective, but for the locker room as well. The players are good, Hall-of-Fame caliber even, and the coach is a proven winner. The combination should carry them to success, but there’s no better time to do it than in March. Well, they kind of have to or their playoff hopes will die.

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