Seven days. That’s all the time it took for the Washington Capitals to reverse the momentum they gained during a successful trip through California earlier this month and put their playoff hopes back on life support.
After finding success through assertive, grinding effort and working as five-man units while on the road against some of the toughest teams in the Western Conference, the Capitals regressed into an unsteady bunch and lost three straight this week.
All of their worst habits — slow starts, squandered leads and erratic passing — returned to prominence, combined with the continued invisibility of the team’s top players at even strength. As a result, Washington has just seven regular season games in which to force its way into the playoffs.
“I feel like we’re trying to change our identity every night. Some nights we want to score off the rush, other nights we want to try and grind it out and there’s just not that consistency in not just our game but in the style of our game,” Troy Brouwer said. “We’re kind of losing our way in between games and playing towards other teams’ [styles] and how they’re dictating the game, and as a result we’re not getting results.”
The Capitals did pick up two points during this skid thanks to a pair of shootout losses, but those did little to help them gain ground in the standings. Detroit and Columbus remain in the first and second wild-card spots, respectively, doing just enough to stay beyond the Capitals’ reach. Even if Washington manages to pull even with either, both the Red Wings and Blue Jackets own the first tiebreaker of more combined regulation and overtime wins.
So the Capitals likely will need at least one of those two teams to falter if they’re going to make their seventh consecutive postseason appearance. But if they can’t help themselves with greater urgency and better overall play, no amount of outside assistance will matter.
“I don’t see the guys not trying,” Coach Adam Oates said. “We’re trying to do the same thing every night.”
Even-strength production has fallen short for the Capitals all season, but the gaps between goals for the team’s top talent are alarming.
Alex Ovechkin hasn’t scored five-on-five in 15 games, the worst dry spell of his career. He went all of March without a point at even strength and owns the worst plus-minus rating in the league at minus-34. Nicklas Backstrom hasn’t scored at even strength since Feb. 27 at Florida. Marcus Johansson has just two five-on-five goals this season. Brouwer posted his second even-strength goal since the Olympic break Sunday.
Of the 13 five-on-five goals the Capitals have recorded in the last eight games, three came from top six forwards — two from Brouwer, including an empty-netter, and one from rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov.
“Power play and penalty kill gets you through games. They get you through playoff series if you make it,” Brouwer said. “But at the same time we’ve got to be able to function five-on-five and not consistently be minus five-on-five night in and night out.”
Those deficiencies at even strength were exacerbated this week when Washington failed to put together complete games, which is inherently counterproductive for a team that hasn’t held a playoff spot since Jan. 18.
They frittered away a two-goal, third-period lead against Los Angeles and wound up with the consolation prize of a 5-4 shootout loss Tuesday. A lack of poise and focus at the start Saturday allowed the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins to walk all over them , and the Capitals’ full potential only surfaced once they were down by three, too late to prevent a 4-2 loss.
Then on Sunday, a Predators squad that won’t make the playoffs outworked a Washington team still very much of the hunt and took advantage of its frequent lulls in play to capture a 4-3 shootout win.
For the Capitals’ play to swing so dramatically raises doubts as to whether they can finish strong enough to earn a playoff spot. But the players still believe the potential is there.
“We just haven’t been our best,” John Carlson said. “We’ve been talking about it since day one, playing 60 minutes, because when we all start going it’s fun to watch. We control the play completely against every team that we’ve ever played. We just have too many lapses.”
A few more and they’ll have an early offseason.