Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Capitals shouldn’t panic, for this season or the future

Video: The Post Sports Live crew discuss the Capitals' offensive ineptitude and debate about Dale Hunter's future with the team.

The Washington Capitals’ season, as well as the whole trajectory of the franchise’s history, is at a crossroads with 16 games to play. The team that led the NHL in regular season points over the past three seasons — better than San Jose or Vancouver or anybody — would not even be included in the 16-team NHL postseason if the playoffs started now.

But it’s actually worse than that. Since the Caps started the season with a seven-game winning streak,only three teams have amassed fewer points.

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The Caps aren’t just on the verge of missing the playoffs, after thinking they might go to the Stanley Cup finals. After three straight loses at home, and with their best player, Nicklas Backstrom, almost certainly out for the season, they are in danger of imploding. Their meeting on Thursday night at Verizon Center with Tampa Bay has suddenly become vital. After that, the Caps play six of their next seven games on the road, where they’ve been horrid. In two weeks, if they don’t shape up in a hurry, they could be DOA.

Bad things happen to teams when they fall apart. People panic or judge too harshly. Hope flips too quickly into anger. Players get traded, free agents aren’t re-signed, coaches don’t return or general managers are in jeopardy.

That’s how windows of opportunity get smashed unnecessarily; that’s how rosters, which took many years to construct, get blown up before their time. The Caps don’t need to fire Coach Dale Hunter, even though he often seems lost since he replaced fired Bruce Boudreau, who’s flourishing in Anaheim. They don’t need to can General Manager George McPhee, who’s had his worst year but still has plenty of young talent set to arrive next season. Aside from Alexander Semin, who’s a free agent and should be allowed to leave — for anywhere — the Caps don’t need to detonate their locker room.

But the Caps, and especially Alex Ovechkin, who this season might not rank among the NHL’s top 40 players, sure need to finish the year with some pride.

Late-season collapses, especially when they come after three straight bitter playoff exits, sow the seeds to future disintegration. If the current version of the Capitals just isn’t good enough to keep its appointment with a Stanley Cup destiny, then there will be plenty of time to find that out. Let’s not be in a hurry to embrace bad news.

If the Great Eight is never coming back, if Mike Green is injury-prone in perpetuity, if Backstrom’s concussion symptoms, which have him home recuperating in Sweden, are some ill omen, we’ll know soon enough. But cope with that in the future.

For now, the Capitals, and their supportive fan base that only boos them on the worst moments of their poorest nights, need to do what this team has done best for the last four seasons: take it to the wire. Every time the Caps have needed to hit the whip to reach the playoffs or win the Southeast, they’ve done it. This will be the hardest test. But that’s the job.

“Last season, we were still behind [Tampa Bay] three-quarters of the way through the season, but we won the division,” Brooks Laich said after the Caps lost their third straight home game on Tuesday night, 4-3 in overtime to Carolina. “A lot can happen in the last 16 games. That’s when you find out the true identity of a team. I still believe we can be an elite team.

“And if you get to the playoffs, you never know what will happen,” he said. “That hope never dies. If it does, you’re in the wrong business.”

“We’ve made remarkable runs the last 20 games almost every year,” McPhee said on Wednesday. “We’ve become too reliant on that great push at the end. But we need to make it again.

“We need our best players to carry the team — a hot goalie, Green, Semin or Ovechkin,” McPhee said, emphasizing that, along with Backstrom, those three are still the most gifted Caps. “We have players who can do it.”

Do they? Nobody doubts Backstrom. But the others are now mysteries.

In 2007-08, the fabulous four Young Guns played together for the first time. Backstrom, at 20, was second on the team in scoring. Green, 22, didn’t miss a single game. Ovechkin, 22, won the first of his back-to-back MVP awards. Semin, 23, seemed to be a future perennial 40-goal man. The NHL, and Washington, dreamed of what they might become.

Now, Green, who’s missed 80 games in two years, is back, but covered with rust. Semin has simply dissolved, from 40 goals to 26 to a pace for 21 this year. The Caps have tried everything they know, except “goodbye.”

Ultimately, Ovechkin is the central dilemma. In his first five seasons, his points-per-game average was the sixth best in NHL history, just behind Sidney Crosby. Then, last year, he dropped from 1.51 points per game to 1.08, a level that would still rank 29th best in history next to Hall of Famers Jean Beliveau and Mark Messier. The Caps can still win big with that Ovi.

But this year, Ovechkin stands a preposterous tied for 53rd in the NHL in scoring and tied for 21st in goals. His 0.79 points per game would be 178th in history, next to Valeri Kamensky and Alex Kovalev — pretty good players. But the Caps don’t need the Pretty Good Eight.

Ovechkin still delivers thundering hits, but he coasts in his own end constantly, saving energy or dreaming of breakouts that no longer suit the Caps’ defense-first system under Hunter. His point plummet at age 26 — from 109 to 85 to a pace for 61 — is even more troubling if you look at the careers of the 50 top scorers in history. Find one, just one, who had such a decline in back-to-back seasons, then returned to his former level. I can’t. McPhee said, “None come to mind. I’ll probably think of one.” Yet he not only believes that it’s possible, he thinks it’s coming soon.

“Alex is an exceptional athlete with such great willpower that, at any point, on any night, he believes he can impose his will on the other team and be the difference maker,” McPhee said on Wednesday. “He has the ability to carry this team and no one would love to do it more than him.

“He can still be great and for the next 10 years.”

When a team has four stars and two of them miss 75 games (so far) and the other two perform far below their previous standard, nothing good ever happens. What do you do? You play it out. You retool, but without the aid of high explosives — not yet, anyway. And you come back next year.

“You can’t stop ’em from being young,” McPhee said. “Young teams don’t win very often in this business. It takes time to become good vets, good leaders. Most players don’t win Cups until their late 20s, early 30s.”

Oh, sure, now the Caps change their tune. And don’t forget to renew your season tickets. But there’s no other sensible reaction. In sports, it’s so much easier to destroy than to create — and even easier to regret it.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.­­­com/­
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