The Washington Capitals are looking better, but not Stanley Cup-winning better. Last night's game against the Penguins proved the Capitals would have to play their very best game to stay with the elite of the NHL.
Pittsburgh proved that they could make more than a few mistakes and still beat a team they may see in the playoffs.
The Penguins didn't convert a power play chance and even allowed a shorthanded goal in winning the game. Washington needed two two-man advantages to even get on the board. The most promising turn of events for Washington seems to be the emergence of rookie goalie Michael Neuvirth. Making his fourth consecutive start, Neuvirth kept the Capitals in the game by making 25 saves.
Just 22 years old, Nevirth is currently the number-one goaltender over the other 22-year old goalie on the roster, Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov has battled injuries this season but Boudreau has still given him a shot to battle for the number-one designation. Neuvirth appears poised to emerge as the guy the Capitals are going to rely on.
Counting the shootout, Neuvirth stopped Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby on two separate breakaway attempts.
Malkin's first breakaway was a penalty shot attempt in which Neuvirth played the puck the entire way, forcing Malkin to a backhand miss. Crosby would follow up moments later with a breakaway of his own. With a Caps defenseman draped on him, he was unable to get off a quality chance. However, Crosby has converted those types of plays in the past and Neuvirth beat him.
The recent two-game winning streak and last night's loss have given Caps fans hope that the worst is behind them.
The Capitals, while improving each game, still appear to be the definition of sports insanity, trying to get different results using the same system and players.
The numbers must be repeated. The Capitals are 3-9 in December and are 8-12 in their last 20. That’s a quarter of an NHL season. They have only been outscored 60-51 so the problem doesn't seem to be on the defensive side of the puck. The Capitals are tied for 11th in the league in goals against. The problems are with the superstars, they simply aren’t producing as such.
Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom are the top three scorers on the Capitals but have not produced like top line players in the last twenty games, much less like star players.
The three have combined for just 46 points over the 20 games. Ovechkin has gone eight games without a goal, Semin nine and Backstrom eleven. Not to beat a dead horse and continue with comparisons that seem to be annoying many, but Crosby and Malkin over the same 20 games have combined for 58 points. If you throw in Pittsburgh's third-leading scorer Kris Letang, the total reaches 74.
Changes are needed and if the Capitals don't make them a little quicker than the trade deadline, the value of the player they may have to deal could drop. The obvious choice is to deal Alexander Semin. Semin is without a deal for next year and would bring the most in return. The Caps may also have to deal Varlamov.
Semin has been criticized for disappearing in the playoffs and playing lazy at times. He is the oldest of the three at 28 and the Capitals could get real value if they don't wait too long.
While George McPhee is adamant that he will not part with one of the 22-year old netminders, he may simply have no choice in order to get what Washington needs to make a solid run at the Stanley Cup. While Neuvirth is showing signs of emerging as a number-one goalie, riding a rookie goalie into the Stanley Cup playoffs is a dangerous chance to take. Remember two years ago?
The Capitals are currently deadlocked with the Tampa Bay Lightning for first place in the Southeast ivision. Atlanta trails by just one point. The Capitals this time last season had 52 points and led the second-place Thrashers by twelve points.
Another defenseman, a veteran goalie and a top second-line forward are needed to make the Capitals a viable Cup contender. The core of this roster needs to be shaken up as Washington can no longer, in my opinion, be mentioned in the same sentence with the Penguins and Flyers as Cup favorites.
I'm not sure Bruce Boudreau makes it to the trade deadline either. If the Capitals make a move to acquire said needs and nothing changes, what happens next?
In a speech given to his team on HBO's 24/7 on Wednesday night, Boudreau reminded the Capitals that the Chicago Blackhawks lost nine in a row last year and went on to win the Stanley Cup. While that may be true, the core of that team got a whole lot closer to winning a Stanley Cup the year before they actually won the Cup, losing in the conference finals to Detroit.
The Capitals became the first number-one seed and Presidents’ Trophy-winning team in NHL history to squander a three games to one lead to an eighth seed and lose in the first round of the playoffs. Changes are needed and underneath that caring great uncle type of personality Caps GM George McPhee shows on the 24/7 series is a hockey guy that knows changes are needed.
The recent acquisition of defenseman Scott Hannan is a start, but just a start. This trading period may amount to an overhaul of top-notch talent. It's not unprecedented, just look at the NBA's Orlando Magic, realizing they were good but not good enough to win a title, traded three starters.
A deal like that takes some stones, and if McPhee has them, he will possibly need to do something similar.
When McPhee decides to become the uncle you hate and starts shipping players and possibly a coach out the door is another story. If McPhee doesn’t do it soon, then another first-round exit and even worse, missing the playoffs could happen.
The Thrashers and Lightning aren’t going away. Both teams made serious off-season upgrades to catch the Caps. McPhee and the Capitals may need to make serious in-season changes to stay ahead of both teams and make the playoffs, much less win a Stanley Cup.