In a moment typical of weeks of slipshod defensive play by the Caps, Tom Wilson was caught flat-footed 33 seconds into overtime and allowed a long pass to Zibanejad — who might have been considered worth covering, given his four previous scores — for an uncontested breakaway game-winning backhand past goalie Ilya Samsonov.
Next, the Caps visit the archrival Penguins on Saturday, whom they lead by only three points, while Pittsburgh has a game in hand.
A season that looked like a cakewalk on Christmas Eve, perhaps even another President’s Trophy year, is now teetering toward crisis. The Flyers have gained 17 points on the Caps in two months, including two head-to-head wins on the Caps’ home ice by a combined 12-4 in less than a month. The Caps, 14-15-2 since Dec. 23, may have talent, but right now they look like a stagnant, bewildered bunch.
What the Caps don’t have is the cohesive team play or the defense or the consistent late-season energy and accountability from their top stars or the answers from their coach that they need entering the last four weeks of the regular season. Not now anyway. They better find them fast.
“If we keep doing that,” forward Garnet Hathaway said of the Caps’ two-steps-forward, two-steps-back play. “There is not going to be a future for us.”
There’s one more thing the Caps don’t have: time. Time to think everything is okay, that they will find their game and a consistent level of toughness and discipline when they need it by the playoffs just because they have so many vets who have won a Cup.
“It’s got to be now,” goalie Braden Holtby said, referring to the hockey calendar with 15 games left. “Look at the last few years. The teams that win get going now.”
Like the Caps in 2018? “Exactly.”
One play against the Flyers on Wednesday crystallized the Caps’ season-long problems.
“We get beat back by their fourth guy,” Lars Eller said of a Flyers rush. “Their D jumps up. We’re not there. . . . It’s got to be five guys playing offense and five guys playing defense, and right now we’re not getting that.”
Really, that scoring rush was five-on-two with Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana all left behind.
“Eller nailed it,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said Thursday. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a five-on-two before. That is indicative of how we are defensively as a team [too often]. It has to be five, playing together — defensively and offensively.”
On a later too-easy goal, Alex Ovechkin never got back on an odd-man rush. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Oshie messed up a line change and got a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. Wilson got 12 minutes in penalties, including two fights — vs. Nate Thompson and Robert Hagg, meaning the Flyers were cheering and laughing as Wilson “traded” himself for two humble gents who volunteered to take 22 right-hand blows from Wilson.
Look at those names: Those are the Caps’ stars. Afterward, in a disappointed locker room, who spoke for the Caps? Nic Dowd, Eller and Hathaway, who all played well, and Holtby, who kept the game 1-1 for 34 minutes almost by himself. The stars? Not around. In pro sports, that’s hiding. At season low points, team leaders fight for the mic.
Everyone is entitled to their own theory about the Caps’ perplexing season, including the most optimistic version, which is simply that they will find their best game when they need it in April and all this regular season nitpicking and self-flagellation will seem irrelevant. But I don’t think the patterns of this season are that innocuous.
Even when the Caps were playing their best and looked as if they might run away to another Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best record, any look at goal differential, strength of schedule, long-shot comeback wins and goals allowed would say the Caps were more like the fourth- or fifth-best team in the NHL — still praise but not flattery.
A team, at 26-6-5 altitude, can get into bad habits, count on talent and offensive firepower, tune out coaches and then suddenly find itself dazed in mid-ring when the punches it had been fortunate to duck start landing. This is a moment when Todd Reirden, who was given lots of credit as an assistant coach for the Caps’ improved defense in their Stanley Cup season, must show he is a worthy successor for Barry Trotz, the seen-it-all Yoda of a coach. Would Trotz have been able to snap a whip and get this team’s attention many weeks ago?
How do you tell Ovechkin, who after scoring two goals Thursday to tie for the NHL lead, is on pace for 58 this season and perhaps a ninth goal-scoring title, that he needs to remember — and exemplify — all those grinding, painful team-first little things that made him a great captain in 2017-18? “C” also means Consistency.
How do you tell Backstrom, with his big, new long-term contract, that he needs to pick up his game even though the playoffs won’t arrive for a month? Who’s going to ask Kuznetsov how he can be the best player on the ice against the Jets one night at Capital One Arena, then be a nonentity in Winnipeg against the same team two nights later?
Who’s going to tell Wilson that, much as his coach and GM will defend him, his search-and-destroy performance against the Flyers may have been the biggest reason the Caps lost perhaps their most important game this season? When you’re in the penalty box for 12 minutes and play just 12:07, it’s not just your absence but the chain-reaction damage on different lines and special teams assignments that must be adjusted.
On the season stat sheets, you have to look all the way down to Carl Hagelin, with just seven goals in 55 games, or Michal Kempny, whose hamstring sometimes needs rest, to find a player who doesn’t appear to be having at least a decent season — and in some cases a very good one, such as Vrana with 25 goals or Eller, who already has tied his career high with 38 points. In recent weeks, Holtby has increased his workload and played better at the right time.
However, one reason the Caps, despite having the most points in the NHL over the past 38 seasons, have only one Stanley Cup is that, except in 2017-18, they may never have been the NHL club that best exemplified “team.”
“There have been times recently when I thought we were awesome — for stretches of games — and it seems like it’s coming together,” MacLellan said. “Then there’s a [bad] game where you say, ‘Where did that come from?’ Or when we take four penalties in one period [against the Flyers] and you think, ‘These are not very good things to be happening at this time of year.’
“It’s been a tough stretch [since Christmas]. But that top six [the first two lines] won a Cup. Our power-play guys — they’ve all done it, all won,” added MacLellan, including defenseman John Carlson and his brilliant 73-point season. “Over a season, it’s not what happens. It’s always about the response. You can have a game like that [against the Flyers]. Do you catch it? Do you correct bad habits?
“The challenge is to get in sync — and find the ‘team’ game.”
Fortunately, the Caps’ final 15 games are a normal schedule — eight home and seven road, with an even distribution between teams in the top and bottom of the NHL. A team as good as the Caps think they are and that has played as well — at times — as they have this year can still find its balance and play its best. As exasperated as the Caps claim they are, they should be responding to Reirden, too, if he’s a quality head coach.
Unfortunately, the Caps have been saying exactly this for the past 10 weeks. And nothing has changed. At least not for long. There’s still time. But in a sport where many lines, combinations and units must be clicking together to make a deep playoff run, that clock — the one attached to the dynamite that can blow up a promising year — keeps ticking.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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