Can the Caps close the deal and reach the playoffs?
The Washington Capitals' express train to the 2013 NHL playoffs picked up quite a bit of momentum on Tuesday night. The Caps went into Montreal to take on a Canadiens team that is currently seeded No. 2 in the Eastern Conference and came from behind to play their best game of the season in a 3-2 win over the Habs.
Earlier in the season, these were the types of games the Caps would have lost. Those days, however, are now gone. The real Washington Capitals are back and poised to take the Eastern Conference by force.
Or so it seems.
Without question, the Caps are on an absolute tear. With a six-game winning streak, the Caps are tied with the St. Louis Blues for the longest current win streak in the NHL. They are 8-1-1 in their past 10 games, the best mark of any team in the NHL over the past 10 games.
Not even the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins have been that good (although 8-2-0 is hardly anything to be ashamed of).
All this has given the Caps a two-point lead over the Winnipeg Jets for the Southeast division crown as both teams head down the home stretch.
Along the way, Alexander Ovechkin has turned back the clock to several years ago, and there is no one in hockey playing better than the "Great 8" as of late.
In his past six games alone, Ovi has scored eight goals, including his second hat trick of the season, on April 6, against the Florida Panthers. His overall play over those past six games has been nothing short of sensational as Ovi has a plus-eight rating over that span.
Ovechkin is now tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos for the NHL lead in goals, with 26. Quietly, Ovechkin has silenced many of his detractors and is putting together a case for his being considered for the Hart Memorial Trophy.
Nevertheless, there are dark clouds on the Caps' horizon. I am not saying they are storm clouds, but they are dark enough that the Caps and their fans have to be on guard, lest all the hard work the Caps have done so far goes for naught.
As strong as the Caps look—and despite how well they have been playing—there are still weaknesses with this team, particularly at this point in the season, that could cost the Caps a playoff berth.
Here are five of those weaknesses that could prove costly as the Caps fight to clinch a playoff berth.
Look for the Caps and Jets to fight to the finish for the Southeast division title
One of the bigger problems the Caps will have to overcome in order to secure a playoff berth is the relative difficulty of their remaining scheduled, as opposed to the one team in the Southeast division who can still catch them—the Winnipeg Jets.
The Caps have overcome a dreadful 2-8-1 start and are poised to make the playoffs for a sixth straight season—and capture the Southeast division crown for the fifth time in six seasons—largely because they have absolutely dominated their divisional rivals.
Katie Carrera of the Washington Post did a nice job recounting how the Caps have just steamrolled the Southeast division to get to where they are now (via The Washington Post). To be more precise, the Caps are 13-3 against the Southeast division and 9-14-2 against the rest of the Eastern Conference.
But it goes a bit beyond that as well. During the Caps' remarkable 10-game hot streak, the Caps have feasted on the teams in the Eastern Conference who would currently be on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs are concerned. Seven of those 10 games were against such opposition—and the Caps got at least one point out of every single one of those games.
But the going gets rather tough from here.
The Caps have seven games remaining on their schedule. While two of those games are against Southeast division teams—including the game in D.C. against the Jets on April 23 that could very well decide the Southeast division champion—the remaining five games are against Northeast division opponents, all of whom would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
It will not be easy for the Caps. On April 16, they host the Toronto Maple Leafs, who seem destined to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and who have already beaten the Caps twice this season in two meetings.
The Caps will also play the Ottawa Senators twice more, once at home and once in Ottawa. The Sens beat the Caps the only time the two teams played this season. It is worth noting that the Sens would be the Caps' first-round opponent in the playoffs if nothing changes between now and the start of the playoffs.
The Caps also have to go back to Montreal to face a Canadiens team that you have to figure will be looking for a bit of payback. Winning in Montreal is never easy; doing it twice in 11 days is asking for a lot.
The final game of the season will see the Caps hosting the Boston Bruins, and there is no love lost between those two teams, who have already split a game each this season with each team winning on home ice.
The Jets, meanwhile, have a somewhat easier path. The Jets only have six games remaining—and they obviously have to figure out a way to be competitive with the Caps, something they have failed at quite miserably in three of four meetings so far this season—and, including the April 23 tilt with the Caps, have three of their final six against Southeast division foes.
The Jets have the easier path to the Southeast division crown, but less time to get there. For the Caps, the sheer degree of difficulty in navigating these final seven games might be the biggest obstacle they face in reaching the playoffs.
Could Brooks Laich be done for the season?
In this lockout-shortened sprint to the playoffs, injuries have been a big issue for every team in the NHL. Big names like Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, Thomas Vanek and even former Capital Alexander Semin have all had to deal with injuries in the past few weeks.
The Caps have not been immune to the injury bug this season. To the contrary, they have been very predisposed to catch the worst possible strain of the disease and the most recent infection could prove fatal to the Caps' chances of making the playoffs.
Earlier in the season, the Caps had all sorts of problems involving injuries to their defense. The Caps have used various combinations of defenders all year and 13 different men have all taken a turn on defense this season. Remarkably, the Caps are now as healthy on defense as they have been all season. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the offense.
The Caps are currently dealing with injuries to three key players on offense, and the longer these three are out, the greater the impact it has on the Caps' depth, their ability to score and their balance.
Perhaps, the biggest injury is the one to Brooks Laich. Laich suffered a groin injury while playing in Europe during the lockout. Initially, it was believed he would only miss one to two weeks, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie (h/t Brandon Worley of SBNation).
Instead, Laich would miss the first 28 games of the season, and his absence was absolutely felt by the team. A spiritual leader of the squad, a good goal scorer and a physical presence in front of the net, Laich's absence was far more damaging to the Caps than I believe many people realized.
When Laich finally returned to the lineup on March 19 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, his impact was immediately felt.
Laich would play in the next nine games, would score a goal, add three assists and register a plus-two rating—and those are just the stats that can be tracked. Laich brought so much more to the team than just numbers, and this was evidenced by the Caps' 6-2-1 record in games in which Laich played.
On April 4, however, during the Caps' shootout win over the New York Islanders, Laich re-injured his groin, and, if you read Sarah Kogod's article in The Washington Post, it does not sound too pleasant at all.
According to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, Laich will need to be seen by more specialists, and surgery has not been ruled out. There appears to be a real possibility that Laich could be done for the season.
Then there is Martin Erat. At the trade deadline, the Caps acquired Erat, and minor league prospect Michael Latta, from the Nashville Predators, but they paid a heavy price to do so, as they traded one of the best prospects in the entire organization, Filip Forsberg, to the Preds to complete the deal (The Washington Post).
Erat would play in only two games before he was the victim of a vicious boarding penalty from the Florida Panthers' Erik Gudbranson. Erat had to be helped off the ice and did not return. He has not played since then.
Erat was felt, at least by general manager George McPhee, to be the missing piece to the Caps' Stanley Cup puzzle. There is no real certainty as to when Erat will return (The Washington Post). He did not play in the win Thursday night against Carolina.
Another key player missing in action is Joel Ward. On April 7, Ward scored the game-winner against the Tampa Bay Lightning, then got hurt later in the game blocking a shot from Sami Salo. Ward has not skated since the injury occurred (The Washington Post).
Ward's loss removes another gritty role player who was having a great season. Ward is fifth on the Caps in goals scored this season, with eight, and his energy levels and work ethic were one of the few good things going for the Caps earlier this season when things did not look so good.
If Laich, Erat and Ward all miss extended time, it will be very hard for the Caps to score goals and maintain depth. There is nothing wrong with Aaron Volpatti, but he is not a top-six forward and should not be on the Caps' second line.
Injuries to some very key players could end up playing a major role in the Caps missing the playoffs.
Just how far can Alexander Ovechkin take the Caps this season?
While the resurgence of Alexander Ovechkin has been enormously exciting and satisfying, longtime and smart Caps fans have to be feeling a bit of deja vu at the entire situation—and perhaps, feeling very uneasy at the same time.
The problem is what it has always been: The Caps have a tendency to be too reliant on the "Great 8" for their own good
During the Caps' past 10 games, Ovi has scored 11 goals. The Caps, as a team, have scored 35. That means that Ovechkin is currently accounting for roughly 31 percent of the Caps offense.
True enough, we have seen the Caps be far more unbalanced than that in the past as far as Ovi's contribution to the team. When one digs a bit deeper, though, one sees that the Caps are a bit more reliant on Ovechkin than it might appear on the surface.
When Ovechkin is denied a goal, the Caps offense seems to sputter as a unit. On March 26, against the New York Islanders, Ovi did not get a goal, although he did get an assist. The Caps still lost, 3-2—their only regulation loss in the past 10 games.
On April 4, again against the Islanders, Ovi did not score a goal. Ovechkin did rescue the Caps with the shootout winner, but the Caps could only generate one goal among the remainder of the team.
Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, Ovi was again held without a goal. The Caps had to scramble to secure a 3-1 win, and one of those goals was of the empty-net variety.
Take all of that into consideration, factor in the injuries to Brooks Laich, Martin Erat and Joel Ward and one has to be more than just a bit concerned as to what will happen to the Caps offense if opposing defenses are able to limit Ovi's production.
If they can't, then it won't matter, and there is no telling just how far Ovechkin can lead the Caps.
If, on the other hand, Ovechkin is contained, then the Caps might suffer a severe power outage as they try and clinch a playoff berth. Losing power at this critical time of the year would not be merely bad—it could be cataclysmic to the team's playoff chances.
If one was to look at the Caps defense a few weeks ago, this would have admittedly been a bigger concern. There is little doubt that the Caps defense has been playing much better as of late.
A big reason for that is that the Caps' defensive lines have finally stabilized. After shuffling defenders in and out of the lineup pretty much all season, coach Adam Oates has got three lines with which he feels very comfortable.
It was back on April 2 that John Erskine came off the IR (Fox News) and created the current set of defensive pairings that has been working so well for the Caps lately. Is it any coincidence that the Caps' six-game win streak began once Erskine came off the IR? Probably not.
Currently, Oates is pairing Karl Alzner with Mike Green, Erskine and John Carlson and Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy. All six of these guys have made huge contributions during the Caps' six-game win streak.
Hillen scored the game-winner in Montreal, Tuesday night. Green scored the game-winner, Thursday night, against Carolina. Carlson has blocked 105 shots on the season and is ranked third in the entire NHL. Alzner, Erskine and Oleksy are playing with tons of heart and grit.
Still, statistically speaking, the Caps are not that impressive defensively. On average, the Caps are allowing 2.76 goals per game which has them ranked 20th in the NHL. During the six-game winning streak, the Caps are only allowing two goals per game, so there is some definite improvement there.
But why does it sometimes feel like 2010 all over again, where we are just waiting for the Caps to hit the gas and overpower the opposition? Against the Southeast division teams that will probably work fine. Against the really good teams from the Northeast division though? That formula might not work out so well.
Another concern about the Caps defense is that they give up a ton of shots, arguably too many. On average, the Caps give up 31.8 shots per game. That has them ranked 27th in the NHL in shots allowed per game.
To be fair, the Caps' defensive strategy focuses on making sure Braden Holtby or Michal Neuvirth has a clear line of sight. It still has to make any Caps' supporter nervous. What happens if one of the goalies has a bad night and lets in a couple of soft ones? It is a very real possibility, and I really believe the Caps need to tighten things up if they want to make the playoffs.
Can we really count on Holtby stopping 43 of 44 shots as he did Thursday night on a regular basis? No, and Holtby should not have to do that every night.
Lastly, a valid concern has to be what if another injury takes place on the defense? If that happens, then the Caps would have to turn to players like Tom Poti, who has had to deal with injuries, too, this year or the often-criticized Jeff Schultz. Or they might have to recall Tomas Kundratek or Dmitry Orlov from Hershey on short notice.
Chemistry is everything at this time of year. The Caps defense, obviously, has that right now. Chemistry can be a very fragile thing, though, and if the Caps suffer an injury on defense, it could have a very negative impact on the team's hopes of making the playoffs.
Will Adam Oates ever get the Caps penalty kill on track?
For all the great things that Adam Oates has done this season—and to be honest, he has pulled some stuff off that should at least have him in the conversation for the Jack Adams Award—the one area he has completely failed at is the penalty kill.
The Caps' PK has been downright awful all season, and nothing has really changed.
How bad are they? The Caps are killing off penalties only 75.7 percent of the time. They are ranked an abysmal 29th in the NHL in this category. Only the Florida Panthers are worse.
How big of a problem is this? During the Caps' recent 10-game hot streak, the Caps have given up at least one power-play goal in seven of those games. If there is a formula for beating the Caps, the best thing to do is to get them shorthanded.
It is rather ironic that the Caps have the best power play in the NHL, operating at 25 percent efficiency. As scared as opposing teams are, and rightfully should be, to put the Caps on the power play, the Caps should be just as frightened to be shorthanded.
What is also concerning is that the Caps still draw a lot of penalties. The Caps are currently ranked 15th in the NHL as far as the total number of penalties called against them, with 180 on the season. As far as penalty minutes are concerned, the Caps are a bit better as they are ranked 11th with 439 penalty minutes.
Obviously, if you are in the middle of the pack, as far as getting penalties drawn against you, and then you can't kill them off once you are shorthanded—well, anyone can do the math there.
This will therefore be Oates' most important responsibility down the stretch. He must either figure out a way to improve the Caps' PK, get them to commit fewer penalties, or preferably, both. If he can figure this out, the Caps should be fine to make the playoffs and have a real chance to succeed once they are there.
If he cannot, then the summer could be particularly hot as far as Oates' coaching future in D.C. is concerned.