Each of the past two seasons the Washington Capitals faltered. They slipped in the standings, struggled to find consistency and put their playoff aspirations in jeopardy. But both years, they found a way to win enough games down the stretch to force their way into the postseason.
This year as the NHL goes on break for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, they’re living on the edge again.
Even after winning three of the final four games before the hiatus, Washington sits a point out of the crowded playoff picture. The Capitals are one of six teams within three points of the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, but they don’t hold the tiebreaker against any of the other contenders.
When their season resumes Feb. 27, the Capitals will have 23 games, one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league and precious little room for error to try to find a way into the playoffs for the seventh straight season.
“We have a bit of a tendency to get comfortable, of thinking that ‘Oh, we’ve got enough time. We’ll pick it up. We have to,’ ” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We haven’t been able to do that. Teams have gotten better, played us harder, and it’s getting worse and worse every time.”
The Capitals offered a glimpse in their past four games of how they will need to play if they’re going to complete another successful comeback.
They received goals from eight players in that span, received timely saves from their goaltenders and, at least in the past three games, minimized the defensive breakdowns that were a fixture in January, when they went 4-7-4. But each time Washington has appeared to make strides in the past two months, the forward momentum has been short-lived.
“Some games we’re all over them in the offensive zone, but we can’t score. Some games we’re stuck in our D-zone the whole game. We need to put together a more complete game for 60 minutes,” defenseman John Carlson said. “We’ve had some lapses and collapses at some point. We have the tools in here. We know that we can do it, but it’s time to really start putting everything together.”
The Capitals haven’t won three consecutive games since Dec. 7-10, and their 3-0 win over New Jersey on Saturday snapped a seven-game skid against Metropolitan Division foes. Consistency remains elusive, particularly in terms of overall defensive play.
Against the Devils, Washington spent much of the first 40 minutes hemmed in its own zone and unable to execute a clean breakout. Telegraphed passes and a lack of support along the boards made it easy for New Jersey to extend shifts and dominate offensive possession.
While the Capitals went on to win, they had a discouraging 45.7 Corsi percentage — meaning New Jersey had more than 54 percent of the attempted shots — which speaks to underlying possession problems.
“Everything can be better, but our defense can be better. We can defend as a group a lot better,” winger Jason Chimera said. “Collectively, if one guy gets beat, there should be another guy there to help him out. We’ve got to get back to that. We’re relying too much on one guy to do one thing, and if he gets beat, then it’s all or nothing.
“Team defense is a huge thing. You’ve got to protect in layers, give up the outside, not give up anything inside, and it’s pretty easy. You’ve just got to dial in and do it.”
Fellow veteran winger Troy Brouwer said executing the basics, particularly in taking care of the puck and making smart passes, is the Capitals’ biggest need for improvement.
“It’s surprising that you even have to address it in the NHL, but that’s the reality of it,” Brouwer said. “It starts in practice, making sure that we’re crisp. Making sure that we’re not slowing guys down so when you do get into the game you don’t have to think about making a 10-foot pass or 12-foot pass. Just make the pass.”
Washington will need composure in every element of its game — balanced scoring, team effort on defense and steady goaltending — when the season resumes. Of the Capitals’ final 23 games, all but seven are against teams currently in playoff position and only three are against opponents truly out of the postseason hunt.
They will travel to California and run the gantlet of powerful Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose. They will face Boston three times, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia twice apiece. Even though they have to wait 17 days to play again, the Capitals know they will have no choice but to rise to the challenge.
“I’m well aware of our position, and I've never experienced an early exit, and I don’t want to, which is why I’m paying attention so far ahead,” Alzner said. “I’ve found that we play better hockey when we play the good teams. We may not necessarily get all the wins, but we play better hockey, and I think that might be better for us. I hope so.”
Capitals note: Casey Wellman, Julien Brouillette and Patrick Wey were all reassigned to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League on Sunday. They will continue to play there during the NHL’s Olympic break.