"Someone up there, please help us."
Washington sits one point out of the postseason in the NHL’s weakest division with 18 games left to play. The Caps aren’t dead men skating, but in the adolescence of coach Dale Hunter’s one-season contract, they have an identity crisis.
Are they the team that lost embarrassingly 5-0 to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, or the resilient grinders who put away the New York Islanders in overtime after lighting the lamp twice in the last four minutes of regulation?
No one knows—not even the Caps. The players haven’t enjoyed much consistency since Hunter took the reigns. His lines have more combos than the Wendy’s drive-thru, so it’s tough to achieve stability and, more importantly for this petulant team, confidence.
It’s no secret the Caps’ division is the worst in the league. Despite being 10-6-2 in the Southeast, Washington is third in a tight, four-way race for the title with the Florida Panthers, Winnipeg Jets and a surging Tampa Bay Lightning team.
Beggars can’t be choosers, but Washington doesn’t want to limp into the Eastern Conference playoffs and face the No. 1 or 2 seed. If the weakest division in hockey gets weaker, the Caps can count on a playoff spot.
Over the last four seasons—all playoff years for D.C.—Washington ranked 12th, third, second and sixth in the league for shots per game. They rank 23rd this season.
Only one player has ever shot more pucks in one season than Ovechkin: Phil Esposito. With Ovi’s trigger goes the Caps’ playoff chances.
The Caps, not their opponents, should be scoring with a man advantage.
Mike "the Crash Man" Knuble.
If the Caps sometimes look lost as of late—and they do—it’s because a handful of crucial players aren’t far removed from the American Hockey League. Mike Knuble isn’t one of them.
Knuble’s specialty is exactly what Washington’s been missing: a stalwart net presence. He’s the oldest player on the team but knows how to score; at least he did until Hunter began cutting his ice time and benching the vet altogether.
Hunter prefers calling up right wing Jay Beagle from Hershey over playing Knuble. Despite Washington media christening him the Rudy of D.C., Beagle has just one point (an assist) in 23 games.
Knuble and Ovechkin have a history and a rapport. With Nicklas Backstrom on injured reserve, a Knuble-Marcus Johansson-Ovechkin first line would provide a potent combo of speed, size and experience.
This will be Knuble’s first season without at least 20 goals since 2002-03. Seems to me the Caps need a proven scorer to make the Eastern Conference playoff cut.
The Caps have been sloppy with the biscuit, and opponents have capitalized.
Turnovers in their zone, bad offensive passing, slow back-checking and straight-up lazy play have continuously cost Washington. They are minus-18 as a team.
Goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth haven’t been stellar, but it doesn’t help when blue-liner Roman Hamrlik twiddles his thumbs around his own net. Even when Hunter benches the dismal veteran, rookie mistakes from the talented but young Dmitri Orlov have damned the Caps D and cost them W’s.
Not even the return of Mike Green has rendered security around the net. The Caps must treat the puck like their firstborn to make the playoffs.
The Caps have a giant chip on their shoulder. No team in the league has more pressure to win than Washington. High salaries and early playoff exits haven’t fared well with the fanbase, which perennially expects a Stanley Cup and, at the very least, a playoff series win.
Bruce Boudreau’s firing and the hiring of ex-Cap enforcer Dale Hunter seemed like a good idea, but some players evidently disagree, challenging his decisions publicly. Many wonder if the NHL is over Hunter’s head.
There’s no doubt a mental component to Washington’s game. But if D.C. wants to make the playoffs, they can’t let the soap opera sidetrack them.