Thirty games remain for the Washington Capitals. The trade deadline is three weeks away. Tick. Tock.
Actually, there might be more of a ringing in their ears after the Boston Bruins beat them 4-1 on Super Sunday at Verizon Center. In addition to the defeat, the Capitals may have lost yet another key performer: multitasker Brooks Laich, who limped off midway through the game after being checked into the boards. Throw in Nick Backstrom's lingering concussion issues, Mike Green's abdominal surgery and the continuing funks of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and the prospect of a late-season run like last year's seems unlikely.
Dale Hunter wasn't overreacting to Laich's left knee injury, not that Dale is the overreacting type. "We're gonna see tomorrow," he said. "Day to day now." Laich, meanwhile, was hoping a little ice — and his own magical healing powers — would do the trick.
The Caps can only hope so. If Brooks is gone for very long, given all the roles he plays ("faceoff guy, penalty-kill guy, power-play guy," club policeman Matt Hendricks put it), it will just make it harder for the club to climb out of ninth place in the East — and harder, as well, for George McPhee to refrain from making a major move at the deadline.
In Sunday's game, the Capitals lacked the spunk that enabled them to knock off the defending Stanley Cup champs just before the All-Star break — with Ovechkin on unpaid NHL vacation and Backstrom and Green out. Part of that might have been because the Bruins brought their A game this time — and went with their A goaltender, part-time political activist Tim Thomas. Another part might have been that the Caps were playing less than 24 hours after a 3-0 win at Montreal. (Of course, the Bruins had played — at home — Saturday afternoon, too, but they aren't in the depleted condition the Caps are.)
At any rate, the B's "came pretty hard at us" in the early going, Hunter said. "They were knocking it around the boards, and their 'D' was pinching." Before the first period was over, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand had scored for Boston, Thomas had foiled great chances by Ovie (on a one-timer from the right circle) and Semin (on a breakaway), and the Bruins were on their way to a two-point Sunday brunch.
The Capitals can't afford any more outings like this, days when they can't match their opponents' energy in the crucial opening minutes of a game. Undermanned or not, they need to be in desperation mode from here on out (think: the 2008 stretch run). And with Laich perhaps about to join Backstrom and Green on the injured list, all eyes turn to Ovechkin, the former goal-scoring machine who, going into Sunday, didn't even rank in the top 15 in the league.
These last 30 games might be most important 30 games of Ovie's NHL career. Hunter talks about how players such as Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault have to seize the moment (while Backstrom is trying to get his head straight). Heck, Ovie has to seize the moment. He's the Caps' leader, their most visible player. If not him, who? If not now, when?
He'll probably never go back to being the 65-goal freak he was four years ago, when he and Sidney Crosby threw off enough light to illuminate the entire league. But he can certainly play better than this (20 goals, 19 assists), can't he? Indeed, after his recent 12-day sabbatical, he should be rested, relaxed and ready to rev up the Russian Machine. Let's be honest here: If Ovechkin can't rise to this particular occasion, then maybe it's time to stop thinking of him as any more than just a piece of the puzzle — like Backstrom, Laich and any number of others.
Against the Bruins he showed some jump, as hockey folk like to call it, clanging the puck off the post on one rush (in addition to the aforementioned scoring opportunity). But he didn't find the net. And if he doesn't start finding the net, this could be a short season.
"I feel much better than [Saturday in Montreal, his first appearance after his three-game suspension]," he said. "[Saturday], I didn't feel good about my stickhandling. Today my stickhandling is back."
Now his scoring touch has to come back — or some semblance of it, at least. These final 30 games will reveal much about Alex Ovechkin ... about his viability as a captain, about his future as a hockey player. And so we end this column where we began. Tick. Tock.
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