Washington Capitals: Playoff Pipe Dream

The Washington Capitals (10-14-1) fell to the Southeast Division leading Carolina Hurricanes (15-9-1) by a 4-0 score at Verizon Center on Tuesday night, begging the question, is the team giving a full effort? In the most crucial stretch of the season, even though every game is considered a “playoff game” moving forward, the team from the nation’s capital has come up short. They’ve lost three straight games including losses to the New York Rangers and New York Islanders and hold a 5-5 record in their last ten games, along with an average 7-7 record in front of the home crowd at Verizon Center.

While having a new head coach and new system along with multiple roster changes including the departures of high scoring winger Alex Semin, a veteran leader in Mike Knuble, an experienced defenseman in Dennis Wideman and the injury that has kept fan favorite Brooks Laich out of the lineup the whole season, Washington still hasn’t done enough. They go through stretches against teams you’d expect them to beat handily, but they can make alarming comebacks against Stanley Cup contenders like the Boston Bruins.

Nicklas Backstrom (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Nicklas Backstrom (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

While the roster has been poorly constructed by General Manager George McPhee in his attempt to replace Semin with Wojtek Wolski and Wideman with defenseman including Jeff Schultz and Tom Poti, many players haven’t produced enough.

Former Dallas Stars forward Mike Riberio has been a great addition as a second line center with 28 points in 25 games, but he’s likely a one year stop gap, as Washington’s assist leader is an impending unrestricted free agent. Nicklas Backstrom has put up solid overall numbers as well with 21 points, but holds a lowly 7.1 shooting percentage to go with three goals on the year.

The gritty Jason Chimera has yet to score, forward Marcus Johansson has one goal and a team worst minus eight and Wojtek Wolski hasn’t been quite what the Capitals had hope with eight points in 23 games.

The fact is, the level of compete is absent at times. You see guys like Eric Fehr and Joel Ward busting their but out there all the time, and then players on other lines are playing the complete opposite come the next shift. Goaltender Braden Holtby (9-9, 2.97 GAA) has battled through playing behind a subpar blue line that featured three defenseman Tuesday night that played for Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, when the lockout was lifted in January.

“If you’re going to hunt that playoff spot, you can’t play like this,” center Nicklas Backstrom said of Washington’s effort against the Hurricanes Tuesday night. “We’ve got to be better than that. Tonight was 60 minutes of just terrible effort from us. I don’t know what it is, but we for sure need to talk about it.”

Perhaps the biggest addition to the lineup this season has been forward Eric Fehr who was signed when training camp opened in January, posting six goals and six assists in 22 games, along with a team high plus eight.

Eric Fehr (Tom Turk/THW)
Eric Fehr (Tom Turk/THW)

“We were on a pretty good roll there and then we lose three in a row and we feel like we are right back to where we were,” said Fehr. “We’ve just go to work that much harder to get back in the division, and obviously it starts in two days against the same team. We’ve just got to find a way to score a goal early on them. They are a different team when they are coming from behind, and we couldn’t expose that today.”

While most of the players felt it was a pathetic effort Tuesday night, new head coach Adam Oates felt differently of the team with the second to least amount of points in the NHL entering Wednesday. It begs the question, is that how he really feels, or is he just attempting to stay positive during this grueling, 48 game shortened season.

“They didn’t have their first chance till four minutes left in the first period,” said Oates. “We were doing a lot of things right, we had a lot of chances early. We didn’t score and they got a soft one [goal], put us on our heels.”

“We had breakdowns, but so did they [Carolina]. The first period we should have been up 2-0 in that period.”

The Capitals face another monumental contest Thursday night in Carolina, where a loss could put Washington 12 points behind the division leader. Getting in the playoffs as a lower seed could be impossible for the team in the nation’s capital, making Thursday night the biggest game of the season for the Capitals.

“There’s certain things we’re going to want to do the same,” said Oates of what needs to change the next time the two clubs meet. “Control the puck, obviously our execution could be better all the time.”

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