The Capitals are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
Washington is currently 27-23-9 for 63 points. They are fifth in the Metropolitan Division standings and 11th in the Eastern Conference standings, with 23 games remaining. If the playoffs began today, the Capitals would not participate.
Extending its six-year postseason streak will be quite an undertaking for this team, the success of which will come down to numbers. The Capitals will have to earn enough points in the second half of the season to qualify as one of the eight teams to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs out of the Eastern Conference.
So, how many points will the Capitals need to earn to make the playoffs?
To answer that question, let's take a look at the number of points earned by the eighth-place team in the Eastern Conference over the last eight NHL seasons—dating back to just after the cancelled season of 2004-05—and then take the average number of points needed to qualify for the period in question. (Note: The percentage of total points for the 2012-13 season has been projected over 82 games.):
|Last 8 Seasons: % of Points Needed to Qualify for Playoffs in East|
The average of 92 points would be a reasonable number for the Capitals to shoot for, especially considering the three teams currently ahead of the Caps in the Eastern Conference standings—the Detroit Red Wings in eighth place, the Columbus Blue Jackets in ninth place and the Ottawa Senators in 10th place—are on pace to finish the season with 90, 89 and 88 points, respectively.
For the Capitals to reach 92 points, they must earn at least 29 of a possible 46 points over their final 23 games, or 0.630 percent. This would be a significant improvement over the 0.534 percent of points the Caps have earned to date, which puts them on pace to earn 88 points.
To reach the 92-point mark, Washington will have to follow a specific blueprint over the next seven weeks. This blueprint can be broken down into three distinct phases, based on the team's schedule. In each phase, the Capitals must earn a certain number of points in order to consider that section of their remaining schedule a success.
For each game, the acceptable result, in terms of points in the standings, is based on three factors:
- Difficulty of the opponent (current position in the standings).
- Importance of the game (i.e. divisional opponent versus conference opponent).
- Location of the game (home or away).
If the Capitals do not earn enough points against each opponent, they will not successfully complete each phase. More importantly, their postseason project will never get off the ground.
Without further ado, let's take a look at the blueprints:
Phase I: Feb. 27 - Mar. 11, 8 Games.
|Phase I: Opponent's Record and Acceptable Result|
|Feb. 27||@ FLA||58||22-29-7||51||ATL 7th||EAST 15th||WIN||2|
|Mar. 1||@ BOS||57||37-16-4||78||ATL 1st||EAST 2nd||LOSS||0|
|Mar. 2||PHI||59||30-23-6||66||MET 3rd||EAST 7th||WIN||2|
|Mar. 5||@ PHI||59||30-23-6||66||MET 3rd||EAST 7th||OTL||1|
|Mar. 6||@ BOS||57||37-16-4||78||ATL 1st||EAST 2nd||LOSS||0|
|Mar. 8||PHO||58||27-21-10||64||PAC 4th||WEST 9th||WIN||2|
|Mar. 10||PIT||58||40-15-3||83||MET 1st||EAST 1st||WIN||2|
|Mar. 11||@ PIT||58||40-15-3||83||MET 1st||EAST 1st||LOSS||0|
Total Points Available: 16. Goal for Phase: 9.
The first phase of the Capitals' blueprint begins with what could be considered the most important game of the second half of the season. The Florida Panthers may not look like much on paper, but that's precisely why the Capitals must win this contest, to be played in Sunrise, Fla.
Adding to the difficulty of this game is the fact that the Panthers have not been an easy out for the Capitals this season, despite the Cats' early season struggles that cost Kevin Dineen his job on Nov. 8 and saw Peter Horachek hired as his replacement, according to Yahoo! Sports. To that point, the Caps and Panthers have exchanged shootout victories in their two matches so far this season, even though Florida resides just above the Eastern Conference cellar with only 51 points.
It doesn't get easier after Florida. The Caps will then play two road games against the Boston Bruins, sandwiched around a home-and-home series with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Caps can earn no points from their two games against the dominant Bruins if they earn at least three against the Flyers, who sit in seventh place in the East with 66 points, well within reach of the Capitals.
Next up are the Phoenix Coyotes, who the Capitals will thankfully face away from Jobing.com Arena, where the Yotes are 17-10-3 and defeated the Capitals 4-3 in the shootout on Nov. 9. As the road team, Phoenix is only 10-11-7. Washington must take advantage of this deficiency while at Verizon Center, where they themselves boast a 17-10-4 record.
Washington has another home-and-home series after playing Phoenix, this time against the Pittsburgh Penguins. If the first six games of Phase I go according to plan, the Caps can afford to earn only two of a possible four points in this pair of games against the East-leading Penguins. That would be a huge accomplishment in and of itself, since the Caps have earned zero points in their two games against the Penguins so far.
Phase II: Mar. 14 - Mar. 30, 8 Games.
|Phase II: Opponent's Record and Acceptable Result|
|Mar. 14||VAN||60||27-24-9||63||PAC 5th||WEST 10th||WIN||2|
|Mar. 16||TOR||60||32-22-6||70||ATL 4th||EAST 5th||WIN||2|
|Mar. 18||@ ANA||60||41-14-5||87||PAC 1st||WEST 1st||LOSS||0|
|Mar. 20||@ LAK||59||31-22-6||68||PAC 3rd||WEST 7th||OTL||1|
|Mar. 22||@ SJS||59||37-16-6||80||PAC 2nd||WEST 4th||LOSS||0|
|Mar. 25||LAK||59||31-22-6||68||PAC 3rd||WEST 7th||WIN||2|
|Mar. 29||BOS||57||37-16-4||78||ATL 1st||EAST 2nd||WIN||2|
|Mar. 30||@ NSH||59||25-24-10||60||CEN 7th||WEST 12th||WIN||2|
Total Points Available: 16. Goal for Phase: 11.
While Phase I had an Eastern feel to it, Phase II has a decidedly Western feel and includes a rematch with the best team in the NHL. Plus, the Capitals will have to play the toughest opponents of this phase in their respective barns, where none of them lose very often. That being said, the Capitals must pick up more points during this phase than either of the other two phases.
Washington leads off with two home games, first against the Vancouver Canucks and then against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both of these games will be challenging, as Vancouver and Toronto are playoff-caliber teams. But if the Capitals want to make the playoffs, they must take care of business at home and they must beat playoff-caliber teams. It's that simple. Thus, anything less than four points for these two games is unacceptable.
The Caps then leave the friendly confines of the Phone Booth for a three-game, five-night California road trip against the three best teams in the Pacific Division. First up are the Anaheim Ducks, who boast the best record in the NHL and the second-best home record in the Western Conference. Anaheim already showed the NHL that Washington is not an elite team this season with a 3-2 victory in D.C. on Dec. 23, after falling behind 2-0 in the first period. Washington should brace for deja vu.
Two nights later it will get slightly easier for the Caps, as they face a Los Angeles Kings team that is seventh in the Western Conference standings and has an almost identical home record to that of the Capitals at 17-10-3.
The Kings are the ripe fruit for the Capitals to pick on this mostly barren road trip. Los Angeles is 2-8-0 in their last 10 games and have scored the second-fewest goals in the Western Conference. For the Caps to earn no points in LA would spell disaster.
Last but not least is the Shark Tank, where the San Jose Sharks hold the best home record in the Western Conference. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the Capitals have not won there in 12-straight attempts, dating back to 1993.
The last of these defeats came on Jan. 7, 2012. After that game, San Jose head coach Todd McLellan may have summed it up best when he told the San Francisco Chronicle "I think every team has that one building or rink or team that for some reason, it just doesn't go right."
Washington then returns home to once again face the Kings. Struggling team or not, the Caps must earn both points at home. The same goes for the Boston Bruins, whom the Capitals will face at Verizon Center four days later. The long layoff should be sufficient rest for the Capitals to earn a win, even against a formidable opponent.
Despite getting about 30 hours of rest for their game against the Nashville Predators the very next day in Nashville, the Capitals must earn both of these points. Nashville has the worst record in the Central Division and the third-worst record in the West. The Caps must come out of Smashville with a win, or they might as well throw away the blueprints and just skip the third phase of their project.
Phase III: Apr. 1 - Apr. 13, 7 Games.
|Phase III: Opponent's Record and Acceptable Result|
|Apr. 1||DAL||58||27-21-10||64||CEN 5th||WEST 8th||WIN||2|
|Apr. 4||@ NJD||59||24-22-13||61||MET 7th||EAST 13th||OTL||1|
|Apr. 5||@ NYI||60||22-30-8||52||MET 8th||EAST 14th||WIN||2|
|Apr. 8||@ STL||57||39-12-6||84||CEN 1st||WEST 2nd||LOSS||0|
|Apr. 10||@ CAR||58||26-22-9||61||MET 6th||EAST 12th||WIN||1|
|Apr. 11||CHI||60||35-11-14||84||CEN 2nd||WEST 3rd||OTL||1|
|Apr. 13||TBL||58||33-20-5||71||ATL 2nd||EAST 3rd||WIN||2|
Total Points Available: 14. Goal for Phase: 9.
The third and final phase is a mixed bag for the Capitals, with two sets of back-to-back games, three matchups with playoff teams and four games on the road.
The Caps begin the final phase with a home game against the Dallas Stars, who cling to the final playoff spot in the West. Dallas defeated Washington in Dallas on Oct. 5 by a score of 2-1. The Caps have to return the favor at their place.
Washington then plays its last four road games of the season, all in a row. The first two are on consecutive nights, versus the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders. The Caps can afford to earn only one point versus the Devils, despite the fact that New Jersey is also vying for a playoff position in both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference.
The next evening, however, the Capitals must earn both points against the disappointing Islanders.
The Capitals then play one of their toughest games of the season on Tuesday of the following week, when they play their second game against the St. Louis Blues. The Caps won the first meeting by a 4-1 score at Verizon Center on the evening of Nov. 17. The Blues had just finished a game only 19 hours earlier in St. Louis, while the Caps had an extra day of rest.
This time around, the Central Division-leading Blues will be hosting the Capitals in St. Louis, where they are 22-5-3. Plus, they will have last played a game two nights earlier. The rematch will probably not go as well for the Capitals, even with two days of rest.
The Caps' last road game of the season takes place against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh. Just like with their games against other divisional opponents with similar records (Philadelphia, New Jersey), a Washington loss in Carolina in either overtime or a shootout would be acceptable. A win would be a bonus.
Washington plays the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks the following night, a rematch from the opening night of the season when Chicago won a wild one, 6-4 on Oct. 1. Washington should hope for another entertaining affair, which may allow them to scratch out a valuable point in the standings.
Finally, the Capitals end their Jekyll-and-Hyde season against the only team to benefit from the collapse of the Southeast Division: The Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay is thriving in the Atlantic Division—even without super sniper Steven Stamkos—while the four other members of the now defunct Southeast Division (Carolina, Florida, Washington and Winnipeg) all sit on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
The Capitals must earn two points against the Lightning on the last day of the 2013-14 regular season—for old time's sake. Their playoff lives depend on it.
So, there you have it. The Washington Capitals' blueprint to make the playoffs in 2013-14.
As you pore over these plans, you will notice that each phase contains some inherent flexibility for the Capitals. For example, earning points in one or both of their road games in Boston during Phase I will allow the Capitals to lose points later in that phase, perhaps as soon as their two games against Philadelphia.
The point is, it does not matter how the Capitals do it. They must somehow arrive at 92 points by the end of the regular season in order to secure a postseason berth.
Otherwise, it's back to the drawing board.
Note: All statistics updated through Feb. 25 courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.