For two months, the Washington Capitals couldn’t lose. For at least two weeks now, Washington won’t win.
The best first half of a season in Caps history just got saddled with an odd addendum: a 14-day snow-assisted pause, interrupted only by Wednesday’s somewhat acrid hiccup against the Philadelphia Flyers, which also came with news that Alex Ovechkin was nursing an injury and would miss the All-Star Game.
At least a secondary assist for Wednesday’s overtime loss goes to the very Scandinavian-sounding Jonas. That blizzard canceled two games, left Washington idle for more than a week, and chased most of the team’s stalwarts off the ice entirely. Or the hockey ice, anyhow.
“I think all of us have been burning a few calories trying to shovel snow and stuff, so we’ve been active,” Karl Alzner assured reporters this week as the team re-gathered before one final game.
Schools finally reopened Wednesday, and here was a new challenge: to take care of an inferior opponent after an eternity away from their studies. This proved trickier than some previous tests. After one of their worst periods of the season, the always-rallying Caps finally fell short, 4-3, ending a home win streak that had started before Thanksgiving.
“It’s like coming back from vacation; that first day of work you’re not very productive,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
This strange month now transitions directly into the Ovechkin-less All-Star weekend, which means five more days of dormancy. One game in 14 days? Even snowbound Loudoun County school kids would be bored by a schedule like that.
The potential boredom level of the Caps is something I’ve wondered about lately, as this team has laid waste to the rest of the Eastern Conference. The Caps entered Wednesday night with the highest goals-for average in the league, and the lowest goals-against. When they have the lead after two periods, they’re 26-0-1. A TSN poll of NHL head coaches this week revealed that 25 out of 27 picked the Capitals to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. If there’s anything to worry about — aside from injury, or zombies — it would be that Washington’s amazing run might sap some of the electricity that powered this surge to the top of the league.
“At the start of the season it was a lot of fun, but now it’s getting kind of boring some nights,” joked Comcast SportsNet analyst Alan May. “And that’s a good thing. But when they turn it up, you’re like oh my God. The wow factor is incredible.”
Wednesday’s rally out of a two-goal hole — spurred by young Euros Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky — was just the latest example. And despite the seemingly inevitable win never arriving, the Caps are still confronted with an odd post-break scenario. They could lose their next 12 games and still be equal to the pace they set last season, when they made the playoffs and advanced to the second round. They could lose 22 straight games — 22! — and still be equal to their 2014 pace. This group could literally flee Ballston and set up camp in some Greek island for the next six weeks, and still be more successful than its predecessor from just two seasons ago.
So put aside Wednesday’s disappointment. This team is going to make the playoffs, and will not need some late push to get in. Its massive lead allows the team to keep Ovechkin home this weekend — even with the one-game penalty — in the interest of saving him for its grander goals. (“You have to think about the big picture,” Trotz said.)
Trotz can insist that “what we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter,” and that “every game matters,” and that the division lead “doesn’t really mean a whole heck of a lot.” Still, you can’t glance at the standings without noticing that canyon between first and second. (14 points entering Wednesday, with three games in hand).
“We’ve been made aware of it,” Brooks Laich said. “Media makes you aware of it. Our coaches have said a few tidbits here and there. But it doesn’t mean anything. It can go away. With a bad week, a bad two weeks, it can go away pretty quick. So that’s what I really like about our team, is just the attention to detail in a single day, not worrying about the rest of the week or the rest of the month. I think that’s better than we’ve ever had before.”
Wednesday’s first period served as some dystopian vision of a late March skid, of two or three poor games nudging a sometimes fragile fanbase into mild panic. Wednesday’s second period was the calming sip of chamomile tea (or bourbon, if you prefer), a never-ending assault that felt like a 12 or 14-minute power play.
But for once, the Caps were punished for their slow start. If they needed a lesson that even the league’s best team can’t take a game or period off, here it was.
“You run the risk of being complacent near the end of the year, whereas you always see those teams that get on a roll at the end of the year that do well,” said Mike Richards, Washington’s newest voice of playoff wisdom. “We can really just keep pushing to get better, no matter how you’re doing in the standings.”
So far, they’ve pushed through injuries, deficits, just about every opponent on their schedule, and now snowy doldrums, earning a point Wednesday despite the poor start. They are one of just 10 teams in NHL history to win 35 of their first 47 games. Their next challenge: to keep pushing even if it’s no longer clear whether anyone is coming up from behind.