The Washington Capitals reached the midway point of their season Sunday in classic 2013 Washington Capitals fashion — playing some very bad hockey at a time they really needed to play some very good hockey. Thus they come out of their New York weekend — at the Islanders and hosting the Rangers — with no points and some unsettling problems.
Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Rangers ended a four-game home winning streak and dropped the Caps to 10-13-1. Their point total remains at 21. They’ve got 24 games left in which to make up a whole lot of ground and nothing this weekend left the impression that that will be easy.
Turnovers, missed checks, sloppy passing, a failure to both avoid and kill penalties — it was an ugly weekend, especially considering they entered Saturday having won eight of 11, including three in a row. Now they face a home-and-home series against Carolina, which is leading the Southeast Division and shows no signs of flagging despite the loss of Cam Ward.
Too soon to talk about the division title? Probably not, because it appears to be the Caps’ best hope for making the playoffs. If about 50 points are needed to qualify for the postseason, they face an uphill climb.
What makes the weekend inexplicable is how good the Caps looked just last week. Tuesday night they rallied from a 3-0 deficit against one of the best teams in the league, Boston, to take a 4-3 overtime victory. Thursday, the Caps feasted on the worst team, Florida, with four goals in the first 8 minutes 10 seconds of the game in a 7-1 victory.
Then came Saturday. Coach Adams Oates said way back at the beginning of the season — you know, a few weeks ago — that he didn’t think the Caps were playing that badly, that they were merely drawing too many penalties. They reverted to form Saturday in a loss on Long Island, giving up two power-play goals to John Tavares after double minors to Mike Ribeiro and Jeff Schultz. That loss left the Caps with only three road wins in the first half of the season.
The short-handed goal that gave the Islanders their final 5-2 margin added insult to injury, and the Caps’ failure to score with a two-man advantage at the end of the game added insult to insult.
Three goalies participated in the two losses, but goaltending is the least of the Caps’ problems. Poor rookie Philipp Grubauer stopped 40 shots against the Islanders in his first NHL start — and still lost. The next time George McPhee calls, Grubauer may let it go to voice mail. Nicklas Backstrom said the Caps owed Grubauer a win and he’s not wrong. They also owed it to him to take more than 24 shots to the Islanders’ 45.
Sunday, Oates pulled Braden Holtby in the second period, after the Rangers’ third goal, saying afterward Holtby didn’t have his “A” game and that he did it “mostly to stop momentum.” The first goal Holtby allowed bounced in off his blade. The third was a nasty shot that appeared to have been deflected just enough to make it tough to read. “I thought maybe the second one he should have had,” said Oates, and maybe so.
Holtby slammed his stick as he headed down the tunnel, neither the first nor the last to do so. “I’d like to finish every challenge I’m given, but obviously I wasn’t good enough tonight,” he said. “That was Adam’s choice and I respect it and I’ll make sure he doesn’t have to make that choice next time.”
The lone bright spot for the Caps was defenseman Steve Oleksy, who scored his first NHL goal less than three minutes into the game. Verizon Center roared as Oleksy grinned from the bench. It was the Caps’ only goal — and only grin.
Oleksy may be a rookie, but he’s also 27 years old and no one’s fool. “Especially in a short season like this, every two points is huge,” he said. “You can kind of consider them four-point games. We’re playing playoff hockey right now. We have to bear down and find a way to get those two points.”
It’s Oates’s job to find that way. After the game, he rated his team’s first half as “average,” which was perhaps grading on the curve. Even so, he was clearly frustrated with the Caps’ lost weekend.
“I think we can do a lot better,” he said. “I think we’ve seen signs of what we can be if we do it right.”
Unfortunately, we’ve also seen signs of what they can’t be, and right now it’s a long list.
For prevous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/