And yet Verizon Center on Tuesday felt like Gordie Howe Night in Detroit or Bobby Orr Night in Boston. It was sweet and nice — but it was also a stretch. In their 37 seasons, the Capitals can call two Hall of Famers their own: Rod Langway and Mike Gartner, though Langway’s only Stanley Cup came in Montreal.
That’s why the Capitals are always searching for legacy players and legacy moments: There just aren’t a lot of either.
All of which brings us to the 3-2 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Ciccarelli Night. Like the franchise itself, this group of Caps is searching right now — for its superstar, for a consistent second-line center and for answers. If the playoffs began today, last year’s Presidents’ Cup champion would be the No. 5 seed in the East and would open against — you guessed it — the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Of course, more than two months and 30 games remain in the regular season, and if the Caps can win at Tampa Bay on Friday night, they will be just three points behind the first-place Lightning in the Southeast Division. Then again, a loss puts them seven points back, and the Lightning will play eight more at home before going to New York for their first post-all-star break road game Feb. 27.
The Capitals came out with great energy Tuesday and caught an early break when the normally excellent Carey Price whiffed on Mathieu Perreault’s wrist shot from the left circle just 2 minutes 29 seconds into the game. Then, when Roman Hamrlik took a silly hooking penalty by reaching for Marcus Johansson on a semi-breakaway after Price had stopped the shot, the Caps actually scored a power-play goal.
The Caps’ power play hasn’t been quite as bad recently as, say, the Wizards on the road, but it has definitely been MIA: nine goals in 88 chances over their past 27 games entering Tuesday. Like a lot of Pepco customers last week, Caps fans have been asking, “When will we get our power back?”
It took 1:55 to answer that question. Mike Green slipped a pretty pass to Mike Knuble on the doorstep, and the Caps had a 2-0 lead 7:49 in thanks to a power-play goal. Dino Ciccarelli Night was off to a festive start.
But as has been the case most of this season, the joy didn’t last for very long. Two turnovers in the second period led to odd-man rushes (a two-on-one followed by a one-on-none) that Canadiens captain Brian Gionta cashed in to tie the score at 2.
“We didn’t let down,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We just made a couple of mistakes.”
Call it what you want. It didn’t soothe the crowd, some of whom resorted to boos at the end of the second period. Even among the Caps, there appeared to be confusion as to what had gone wrong after the encouraging start.
Several players and Boudreau said the exact same thing initially when asked what had changed: “I don’t honestly know.”
Pressed for answers that probably don’t exist at the moment, people went in different directions.
“We lost some focus I think after the first two goals,” Matt Hendricks said. “I thought we changed our game a little bit, tried to play too offensively at times and it cost us. We had a couple of breakdowns. We tried to refocus in here after two periods, and I thought we were better in the third. But we have to be more consistent with our effort. It’s frustrating for all of us.”
Across the room Green wondered if his team hadn’t been “sitting back too much” with the lead. Scott Hannan thought the same thing. In short, the defensemen thought the team might have been playing too defensively, the forwards thought perhaps the team was playing too offensively.
And then there was the suddenly mercurial superstar, Alex Ovechkin, whose postgame voice seems to get softer and softer as his scoring struggles stretch from December to January and now into February. Through Tuesday night, he was 10th in the league in points, hardly awful but hardly worthy of the Great Eight. He has scored 13 goals fewer than Sidney Crosby — even though Crosby has played 11 fewer games — and it is tough to put them in the same sentence at this point in this season.
Ovechkin’s playing as hard as ever. For a moment Tuesday, it looked like he might have turned the momentum around when he cleanly flipped Montreal rookie P.K. Subban to the ice, causing the embarrassed Subban to take a retaliation penalty. That power play lasted 22 seconds before Brooks Laich went off for tripping while trying to stay onside coming into the zone.
“We know the answers have to come from this room,” Hendricks said. “They’re in here.”
Perhaps. The trade deadline is Feb. 28. General Manager George McPhee stormed out of the locker room soon after the game furious about something, certainly not happy with the outcome — shootout or no shootout.
The Caps are still a very talented hockey team and getting Alexander Semin and Eric Fehr back will make them better. But sometimes, when you have a real chance to win a championship, you have to take a gamble, perhaps even give up someone important in the room or a top prospect to take your best shot.
In 1979, the New York Islanders had the best record in hockey and then were stunned in the Cup semifinals by the New York Rangers. A year later, they wobbled through the regular season until general manager Bill Torrey traded Billy Harris, the team’s first No. 1 draft pick, a team leader and a fan favorite, to Los Angeles (along with Dave Lewis, a solid defenseman) for Butch Goring. Two months later, the Islanders won their first of four straight Stanley Cups — after having the league’s fifth-best record.
Every once in a while, a team needs to pay attention to history when it’s trying to write some of its own.