With 34 games remaining, the Capitals can either cement themselves in the postseason for the fifth straight year or founder, slipping backward into the pack of Eastern Conference squads.
Washington, which holds a tenuous grasp on first place in the Southeast with 55 points and 26 wins, will begin to determine its path with an important set of back-to-back games against division foes Tampa Bay and Florida on the road on Tuesday and Wednesday. That the Capitals ultimately control their own fate is a luxury, players said, given how up-and-down this season has been.
“For how we’ve played, I think we’re pretty lucky — where we stand is pretty good,” Jason Chimera said. “I don’t think we’ve played our best yet this season, but we’re still right in the mix.”
Nothing has come easily this year for the Capitals, including captain Alex Ovechkin, whose 20 goals and 19 assists are good for a pedestrian 38th in the league in scoring. There is also the injury factor; no one can predict when or at what level top center Nicklas Backstrom (concussion) and No. 1 defenseman Mike Green (sports hernia) will be able to return. But there are several things the Capitals can control in order to ensure they won’t be on the outside looking in come April.
Perhaps nothing looms larger than finding success on the road. Eighteen of Washington’s remaining contests come away from Verizon Center and 11 will be against opponents currently in 10th place or higher in their respective conference standings.
The Capitals have been especially futile on the road this year. They are 8-13-2 overall, and under Coach Dale Hunter they’ve gone 4-6-2, capturing only 10 of a possible 24 points. Their special-teams units, which rank among the top 10 when playing at home, plummet when visiting other cities, with the penalty kill clocking in at 76.6 percent (27th) and power play at 13 percent (25th).
The Capitals also need to tilt the ice in their favor more often. While the team has outscored its foes, 66-64, since Bruce Boudreau’s firing in late November, Washington has been outshot by its opponent in 20 of the 26 games under Hunter. The shot differential under Hunter is a combined minus-159, with opponents averaging 30.5 shots per game and the Capitals only 24.4.
“I think a lot of times we look for the perfect shot and those don’t come by very often,” defenseman Karl Alzner said earlier this month. “We’ve got to take the ones that are from bad angles and a lot of times those go in because no one’s expecting it. We’ve just got to shoot from everywhere.”
Hunter wants to avoid odd-man rushes at all costs and make sure that the Capitals’ first priority is protecting their own zone.
That strategy often allows an opponent to dominate puck possession and results in Washington being hemmed in its end for prolonged stretches, forcing the team to rely heavily on Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. Both goaltenders have been strong, though, particularly Vokoun, who is 10-6 in December and January with a .925 save percentage.
The Capitals know that to avoid putting more pressure on the goaltenders down the stretch, they need to score some goals to support them. In the absence of offense, there is little room for error in net.
“You try not to put that pressure on yourself,” Vokoun said. “You’re trying to be perfect but you’re not going to be every night perfect.”
If Ovechkin can find his offensive pulse — there was a glimpse of it in a three-point outing against the Penguins prior to his suspension, which ends Saturday against Montreal — then the rest of the team should be able to follow his lead.
With 14 games before the trade deadline on Feb. 27, General Manager George McPhee has time to address certain deficiencies in the lineup, particularly the lack of depth at center. How active McPhee chooses to be at the deadline will likely depend significantly on the health of Backstrom and Green.
Green underwent successful sports hernia surgery on Jan. 17 and might start skating this week. If the two-time Norris Trophy finalist’s recovery progresses without any setbacks, he could be back in the lineup by the end of February, offering a boost to the defense as well as Washington’s overall morale.
Backstrom is out indefinitely with a concussion and has only taken to the ice once — for a brief five-minute skate — in the past 23 days. Given the unpredictable nature of concussions, it is all but impossible to speculate when the 24-year-old Swede might be able to begin skating regularly. From there, Backstrom will need to gradually increase his exertion level without experiencing any ill effects.
Asked about Backstrom last week, McPhee did not sound optimistic. “It’s hard to say,” he said. “We’re working and hoping he’s getting closer.”
It’s been a tumultuous season for the Capitals, and they need to begin pulling everything together as soon as possible.
“We need to get better in the second half, prove we’re a better team,” Roman Hamrlik said. “With the team that we have we can be better, we should be better. Everybody knows it’s not easy to compete even for 60 minutes but we have to find that consistency. We all know what to do, how to play this game — we just need to be mentally sharper.”