It's games like Tuesday night's that make you wonder whether the Washington Capitals might be suffering from some mysterious malady.
Is there such a thing as group attention-deficit disorder? What else would explain a 5-1 loss on home ice to a Buffalo club that's competing with the Caps for the final playoff berth? If a game like that doesn't get your blood pumping, doesn't bring out your Inner Gretzky, you might be in the wrong business.
Defenseman Karl Alzner offered the opinion the next day that the Capitals "usually play better against the good teams, not teams that are near us or below us in the standings."
That would certainly explain the no-show against the Sabres — not to mention the blowing of a 3-0 lead against Winnipeg, another postseason hopeful, two games earlier. Still, you'd think the Caps had been together long enough, had lost enough of these games and enough of these playoff series, to have learned from the experience. Apparently not. The education goes on.
At any rate, there are five games left in the season, and if they don't go well we could be looking at the last five games of an era. Let's face it, if the Capitals don't qualify for the postseason, isn't George McPhee pretty much required to make major changes? Don't he and Ted Leonsis have to admit to themselves that the foundation they've built isn't nearly as strong as they thought it was? Or do they just use Nick Backstrom's extended absence as an excuse to tinker in the offseason instead of taking out the sledgehammer?
Backstrom was flying around the ice Wednesday at Kettler Iceplex in an attempt to get his wind back and return to the lineup. But the club, remember, was struggling before he took a knock to the noggin. With Nicky, the Caps are 15-15 in regulation this season (and 6-2 in overtime and shootouts). Without him, they're 14-16 in regulation (and 3-6 in OT and shootouts). Not as dramatic a difference as you might have expected, is it?
The Penguins, meanwhile, lost Sidney Crosby for 41 games last season — and still made the playoffs by a comfortable margin. This season, they've been without him 61 games — and, once again, will make the playoffs with plenty of room to spare. What does this tell us? Well, for one thing, it tells us the Pens, from top to bottom, are much more solid than the Caps. But it also suggests they might be better at taking a punch. (And the importance of the latter can never be underestimated in this injurious sport.)
It bears reminding, too, that even though the Capitals were the top seed in the East last season, they finished just 14 points ahead of the eighth seed (107 to 93). Only twice since the Caps came into being in 1974 has the difference between No. 1 and No. 8 been smaller. So they didn't have to fall very far to drop below the playoff cutline. Indeed, going into Wednesday night's games only 19 points separated the ninth-place Caps from the first-place New York Rangers.
So what it really might come down to in this hair-splitting contest is: How many nights does a team show up? And is there anybody out there who thinks the Capitals rank very high in the Nights Shown Up department? If so, they couldn't have been paying much attention to what went on at Verizon Center on Tuesday, when the Caps did everything Dale Hunter didn't want them to do.
As longtime followers of the franchise are well aware, Hunter knows a thing or two about grinding out playoff spots. And he's been trying to share this knowledge with his not-always-receptive players. Showdowns like the one against the Sabres require you to play "playoff hockey," he said. You can't "give up too many chances early." You've got to "be [the] better [team] in the first period. You can't fall behind." So what do the Capitals do in the first period? They fall behind 1-0, then 2-0.
Still, you look at the Caps' remaining games, and it's entirely possible they could find a way into the postseason, with or without a late assist from Backstrom. After Thursday's battle at Boston, they face four clubs — Montreal, Tampa Bay, Florida, Rangers — that might have nothing to play for, either because they're out of the playoffs or because their seed is set.
That's the Capitals' best hope at the moment, sorry to say. Maybe those last four teams will mail it in the way the Caps, too often, mail it in. What do they call that, irony?
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Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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