Will The Washington Capitals Turn It Around In Time?

The Washington Capitals have got themselves a reputation going for dynamic regular seasons followed by playoff failures under the leadership of head coach Bruce Boudreau and star forward Alex Ovechkin. Tired of the bad rap, Boudreau was fired in late November after the Caps started slowly, but it appears the way Washington will find some consistency is just to play mediocre hockey all year, rather than just in the playoffs. If the postseason started today the Caps would be home. TheSportsNotebook takes a look to see if there is any possibility for a turnaround in the season’s fourth quarter.

Washington is still very much alive. Their 67 points place them third in the Southeast Division, only three back of Florida. Winnipeg is in second place, currently holding down the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot and just one point ahead of Washington. For the first time in a while, the Southeast has two teams in the top eight, thanks to the slump of Toronto who’s dropped to 10th. So the Caps can play their way in just by being a steady, consistent hockey team in the homestretch.

It’s getting that consistency that’s been at issue and it starts with Ovechkin. Based strictly on production I wouldn’t even find him worthy of mention if it weren’t for his past performance and reputation. Washington has no one they can rely on to consistently light the lamp and their defense isn’t coming to the rescue. While Florida is in the league’s upper half in defense, Washington joins Winnipeg in being mediocre on this end of the ice. And while Winnipeg is at least decent in the area of shot prevention, Washington exposes suspect goaltenders Tomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth to a steady assault of pucks.

What Washington does substantially better than either of its two rivals is execute in basic 5-on-5 play. The Caps are in the top half of the NHL when no penalty is in effect either way, and both rivals are anywhere from mediocre to poor. Washington needs a lot of work cashing in its power plays (something Winnipeg and Florida both do a good job of) and killing penalties (something their rivals are also lousy at), but if the Caps get officials who will just let the game flow, they have an edge. That in of itself would make them the best possible threat to make the playoffs and presumably help out in big regular season games where officials are less likely to get involved.

Performance in key games has been a Washington strength in February, but sustaining solid play has not. Twice the Caps have gone head-to-head with Florida. Both times they won. And both times they followed the win by losing three straight. Let’s run through the games to see if there are any common themes…

On February 7, the Panthers came to the Verizon Center and were handed a 4-0 defeat. Oveckhkin met the big-game moment and scored two goals, including one on the power play. Even though Florida got 42 shots on goal, they couldn’t finish the job. Two nights later it was Winnipeg in town, still on the outside in the Southeast race. After a scoreless two periods, each team scored two power play goals, including one by Ovechkin, but the Jets won in a shootout. Still, the Caps picked up a point and they lost a close game on the road against the New York Rangers 3-2. Here again, we can cut Washington some slack. They were playing the best team in the East on the road and turned in a competitive effort. It was what happened one night later that has to be seen as unacceptable. While San Jose is a decent hockey team, you can’t let them come into your building, fall behind 3-0 immediately and give up three power-play goals in a non-competitive 5-3 loss. It put Washington’s back to the wall when they went to Florida on Friday, February 17.

Once again, Ovechkin was clutch. With Florida leading 1-0 after two periods, the star joined Jason Semin in scoring a third period goal and getting a well-earned road win, as the Caps won shots 41-23. One day later they turned around and lost to a bad Tampa team 2-1. Here again, let’s cut them a break because it was a back-to-back spot on the road. But let’s not cut them a break for going to a terrible Carolina team, giving up three first-period goals, losing shots 40-17 and the game five-zip. Let’s not cut the Caps a break for going to an Ottawa team that is okay, but not great and falling behind 4-0 after two periods and losing 5-2. We see a defense in meltdown and an offense doing nothing until a game is out of reach.

Just when you’re ready to throw in the towel on Washington, they came back with a win this past Friday over Montreal 4-1, with Ovechkin getting a key second period goal. On Saturday the team played its most complete game of this entire sequence under review. They won on the road over Toronto in a big game. In the 4-2 win, four different players scored, with none of them named Ovechkin. Lest you think the forward disappeared, he had two assists. Washington got the win in spite of getting only one power play chance, a testament to their ability to score without getting penalty help.

Are there any conclusions we can draw from the last three weeks? On the positive side, there are obvious signs of life from Ovechkin, the one factor Washington has that separates them from anyone else scrounging for a playoff spot. One player can push a team through a short burst in the season, particularly when we’re just talking about winning a mediocre division or sneaking into the 8-spot in the East. Just as alarming though is the obvious tendency of Washington to seemingly no-show games. I counted three that were all but mailed in during a 10-game stretch. Given that you’re still going to lose tough ones, I trust it goes without saying that a team that’s going to be non-competitive 30 percent of the time doesn’t deserve to make the postseason and is no threat to do anything if they do.

Given the caliber of the competition in the race and the importance of both the Ovechkin revival and the need to play well in 5-on-5 spots, I think Washington remains the best bet to win the division and the Southeast’s best hope for making some noise in the postseason. The team has a manageable five-game home stretch coming up that includes non-contenders in the NY Islanders, Carolina and Tampa and beatable playoff teams like Philadelphia and New Jersey. When we conclude play next Thursday, March 8, we’ll have a good idea if Washington can finally put it together with time running out.

I have friends who are Caps fans, including a couple who are season-ticket holders, and if Boston can’t win it all again, I’d like to see them have the experience of being the last one standing in June. So call me an optimist, but I think Washington passes the coming test.