Capitals look good, but it’s the Penguins’ grit that shows difference between the two clubs


The Capitals’ Eric Fehr battles for position with the Penguins’ Brooks Orpik (44) and Sidney Crosby. Pittsburgh defeated Washington for the seventh straight time on Monday night. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist March 10

There are 16 games left in another postseason-or-bust run in the Alex Ovechkin era, and we all know how it’s supposed to end. The Washington Capitals find their heart and hot goalie in the nick of time, squeaking in to tease their owner and the masses before . . . yet another playoff heartbreak.

Give or take a President’s Trophy, that’s how it’s been done most of the past six seasons around here, right?

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Except something about this team doesn’t feel right. Something about these Caps doesn’t quite translate into the resolve needed to pull it off. If you ask me right now whether they can find themselves in the next three weeks, I’d say no.

The Caps outplayed the Penguins on Monday night, outshot them, dominated for a good chunk of the second period and went on an all-out onslaught to tie the game in the final minutes.

They still fell, 3-2, because of some early miscues and they couldn’t score late because the Penguins mucked it up. They grinded. They outworked the Caps in the corners in the final seconds.

Gritty beat pretty again.

This was the seventh straight loss for the Capitals to their nemesis. They haven’t beaten Pittsburgh since January 2012. They are 0 for 6 in Coach Adam Oates’s tenure.

Sidney Crosby has played in 82 playoff games and two Stanley Cup finals. Alex Ovechkin has played in 24 fewer playoff games and never been past the second round.

Of the seven major awards between them — four Hart Memorial Trophies, two Olympic gold medals and one Stanley Cup — Crosby has all the real hardware that matters.

This does nothing to stain the accomplishments of Ovechkin or the nightly excitement generated in the building I’m typing this from right now. Ovi and the Caps are still as exhilarating a sports entertainment option as there is in Washington going on nearly a decade.

But there is just no comparison between the two franchises during the Crosby-Ovechkin era.

Ovi and the Caps need to worry about themselves before they worry about the team they play for the second time in two nights in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

With the Capitals not owning any tiebreakers, they would likely need to finish with 92 points — a benchmark for most NHL observers. To do that, they would have to get 22 of their final 32 available points.

Is Brooks Laich going to suddenly be healthy? Is Mike Green going to morph into a Norris Trophy candidate again overnight? The real downer is Ovechkin is doing what he does well, leading the league in goals. When your best player is having another tremendous year, it’s about the pieces around him — they don’t fit.

If the Caps want to really get depressed, they can take a look at Vancouver on Friday when the Canucks come to town. Less than three years ago, Vancouver had a 3-2 lead in the Stanley Cup finals with home ice in Game 7 against the Bruins.

Less than three years later, that team’s window has been slammed shut.

Unless some miracle finish is in store, again, I don’t see it for these Caps.

This was the night a new young star made his debut. Two days after he showed up from Russia, it’s impossible to judge Evgeny Kuznetsov. He looked like he floated across the ice and was deft with his stick every time the puck touched it.

He will have some moments of flair and fire. Yet based simply on the time it’s going to take to adjust to a more physical and organized game, the guess here is it will be a few months before anyone knows for sure how good he will be.

In a way, Kuznetsov is a window into why I think this team could find itself on the outside looking in this year.

One of the most incongruent parts of George McPhee’s time here is that a stumpy, tough former player, who once physically stuck up for his team as the Capitals general manager, ended up with so many rosters full of soft players.

Not quitters. Not wimps. But incredibly skilled hockey players much better at puck possession than pounding in the crease until a goal is deflected in to send them to the next round.

They don’t necessarily need enforcers; they already have the fourth-most penalty minutes in the NHL. They don’t need to be a bunch of grinders who always win with their tenacity instead of their talent.

But on this team especially it feels like the balance between the grunt-work guys and the great scorers is swayed way toward offense.

Maybe it’s as simple as John Carlson is their best defenseman, and right now that’s not saying much. Maybe everybody at the trade deadline wanted a Dan Girardi-type player, and a defenseman like that was simply not available. (He ended up re-signing with the Rangers.)

Whatever the reason, this team as constructed has no viable future as a Stanley Cup champion. Even if that annual run happened and the Caps got in, the notion of them upsetting the Bruins or Penguins as a seventh or eighth seed doesn’t carry weight this season.

So here’s the deal: Are you okay with the quality of this product on a nightly basis enough to reconcile the fact that the Caps appear on a collision course with reduced expectations in the final year of McPhee’s contract?

Maybe that’s a better question for the owner.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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