By John Feinstein
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 1:10 AM
Woe are the Washington Capitals.
Things are so bad in Caps-land these days that there's more talk about the next time the Caps play the hapless New York Islanders (Jan. 20) than there is about the Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins on New Year's Day.
Okay, just kidding.
The state of the Capitals really isn't that bad. You want bad, go back to Washington's inaugural season 36 years ago when the team won eight games. That was bad. What's going on right now is frustrating - illustrated perfectly by Alex Ovechkin's second-period fight with Brandon Dubinsky in New York on Sunday night - and it is concerning for a team whose season can't be a success unless it ends with a parade.
That's a new kind of pressure for this team, this organization and, in fact, this town. The last D.C. area team that entered a season expecting to win a championship was Maryland's men's basketball team nine years ago. The last professional team that had those sort of expectations was the last team of Joe Gibbs I, which entered 1992 as the defending Super Bowl champions and barely made the playoffs.
The last time the Caps were in this position was . . . never.
The loss to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens still lingers in the collective consciousness of this team and its fans. But here's why you don't panic in the wake of a six-game losing streak, even when the last loss was by an embarrassing 7-0 score: If the Caps' record at this moment was 32-0-0 instead of 18-11-3, no one would be celebrating. What you would hear - correctly - is this: The games that matter begin in April. That's true for a number of teams - Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, San Jose - but it's perhaps more true of the Caps than any of them, in part because of their talent level and also because of their past spring failures.
Because of their current streak, the Caps no longer lead the Eastern Conference in points. The Penguins do with 44 points, followed by the Flyers at 43 and then the Caps at 39. Believe it or not, at this moment, the Caps are closer to eighth place in the conference (Atlanta at 35) than they are to first.
Guess what? It doesn't matter. Being at home in the playoffs matters less in hockey than in any other sport. Last year's Eastern Conference final matched the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds. The Capitals have lost Game 7 at home the last two seasons - Pittsburgh two years ago; Montreal last April. Sure, they beat the Rangers at home in a Game 7 prior to the Pittsburgh series but the Rangers were walking-dead by then, having blown a 3-1 lead. Even at that, the last game wasn't easy.
What matters in postseason hockey more than anything is having the hot goalie. Does the name Jaroslav Halak ring a bell? Which is why if there is a lingering question for General Manager George McPhee to answer between now and the end of the regular season, it is whether he honestly believes in his hockey gut that the goalie who can win a Stanley Cup this year is on the Caps' roster. Is it Michael Neuvirth, who has been brilliant at times this season? Is it Semyon Varlamov, who has been the primary playoff goalie for two seasons now but never seems to be 100 percent healthy for any extended period of time?
McPhee has proven himself a master in recent years, not only on draft day but in making the seemingly minor trade that makes his team better. The only time he made a deadline trade for a goalie was three years ago when he acquired Cristobal Huet from Montreal. Huet actually played very well but signed for big money in Chicago that summer while McPhee decided to go with Jose Theodore.
Two years in a row, the Caps have gone into the playoffs with Theodore as the No. 1 goalie and two years in a row they shook hands as losers after Theodore had been quickly yanked in favor of Varlamov.
This team can't afford that kind of question mark going into the postseason. There has to be no doubt about who is going to be in net. Anytime you hear a coach say, "I have two number one goaltenders," you know what that means: He has zero No. 1 goaltenders.
There are always veteran goalies available at the trade deadline, especially those playing on bad teams. The Capitals could perhaps take a run at Martin Brodeur. That may sound outrageous, since Brodeur is the New Jersey Devils. But he might be willing to move for a chance at one more Cup, and if properly rested in March (which he hasn't been for years), might be able to stand on his head for one more postseason run.
A more likely and perhaps better scenario would be the Islanders' Dwayne Roloson. He may be 41, but he has been superb for an awful team the last two years and is the kind of calming influence an uptight team could use. His goals against average this year (2.50) is better than either Caps goalie to date, even with a pathetic team playing in front of him. The Caps are so deep in their farm system that they have chips the Islanders might love to have in return for someone who could be the difference between another shocking exit and that parade.
For the moment, the Caps need only to understand that what's going on now is a glitch, not a crash. When they break out of this slump they will probably go on one of their runs where they'll be 10-1-2 over 12 games as opposed to 4-7-1 over their last 12. Ovechkin will get hot; the power-play goals will come in bunches and all will be well again in Capsville.
And that streak, like this one, won't mean anything. The next truly important date for the Caps is Feb. 28. That's the trade deadline.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.