A little more than a month ago, the Washington Capitals called a players-only meeting in search of a wakeup call. Off to the fourth-worst start in franchise history at 2-8-1, they sat in last place in the NHL, five points out of a playoff spot.
They’ve gone 8-5-0 since the meeting, at times showing enough noticeable improvement to suggest that things were finally starting to come together under first-year Coach Adam Oates.
But after dropping back-to-back games against the Islanders and Rangers this past weekend, the Capitals have little to show for their modest progress. Halfway through the season, Washington actually is further away from a playoff position through 24 games than it was after the rocky start in the first 11.
Asked to assess his team at the midway point, Oates was blunt.
“Average,” he said. “I think we can do a lot better. I think we’ve seen signs of what we could be if we do it right. And obviously, we got to figure out ways to improve.”
The Capitals, who play nine of their next 12 games on the road (where they have just three wins), face a harsh reality in the Eastern Conference standings. They are seven points out of a playoff spot and trail Southeast Division-leading Carolina by eight. Wins in a home-and-home against the Hurricanes on Tuesday and Thursday would go a long way toward preserving their hopes of catching up, while regulation losses would spell trouble to any chance of capturing the division title and the automatic postseason berth that goes with it.
“We can’t squander the points that we need to catch Carolina,” Troy Brouwer said. “They’ve been winning; they’ve been playing really good hockey as of late. It’s tough to catch those guys. We’ve got to make the best of it when we have opportunities.”
The scarcity of those opportunities is what made the Capitals’ regression to the bad habits from the start of the season against the Islanders and Rangers this past weekend particularly discouraging.
No team operates perfectly, but for Washington to be undone by the familiar antagonists of penalty troubles, lack of positional soundness and sloppy neutral-zone play smacks at the strides it showed when it won five of the six games prior.
“Terrible start, and we’ve been getting better ever since. This weekend’s a bit of a step back, but I think you can still see our game where we’re playing a lot better,” Eric Fehr said. “We didn’t play a 60-minute effort this weekend, but we had spurts where we were real good.”
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the losses was how Washington’s top players were the most culpable.
Against the Islanders it was leading scorer Mike Ribeiro, who complained after being called for high-sticking and earned an extra penalty resulting in a momentum-sapping, four-minute penalty kill for Washington. It was a power-play goal by John Tavares with Ribeiro in the box that paved the way for a 5-2 loss.
In Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Rangers, mistakes by Alex Ovechkin resulted in three goals against.
In the first period, Ovechkin passed up a neutral-zone hit on Derek Stepan and then made little effort to get back defensively as Stepan beat Braden Holtby from below the goal line on the resulting three-on-two. Then in the second period with the score tied at 1, Ovechkin committed two minor penalties on the same shift before the whistle blew to stop play. The Rangers scored during the delayed call for the first penalty, and then scored again on the ensuing power play.
If the Capitals are going to cobble together any type of second-half push and truly contend for a playoff spot, they need more from their captain, who has one goal in seven games since recording a hat trick on Feb. 23. After the second ugly defeat in as many days, Ovechkin said he was turning his focus to Carolina.
“Tough losses, but refresh our mind, forget these losses,” Ovechkin said. “I think it’s going to be biggest game for us [playing the Hurricanes on Tuesday]. It’s kind of what we have to do. Beat the ’Canes and get back on track.”