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HARRIS: As Caps’ playoff push disintegrates, what’s next?

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I didn't get to see the Capitals play live on Tuesday and "play" may be a poor choice of words since they didn't do much of that in a 5-0 loss at home to the Dallas Stars. Not the kind of performance a playoff push requires.

The smartphone provided details of the first period, the radio details of the second and the television details of the third. All three devices told the same story: horrendously bad game.

By not being there, I didn't get to ask the question I would have liked to have answered afterward: Are you embarrassed by this?

Because they darn well should be.

Professionally, I like the Caps a lot. They're relatively easy to deal with, they're stand-up guys for the most part and they do a solid job of handling their media responsibilities. They're extremely good in the community and they don't show up on police logs, at least as far as we know.

If I had to list my 10 favorite athletes to interact with in the area, probably half would play for the Caps.

But while that's all nice and warm and fuzzy, it doesn't excuse performances in the final games that draw boos from the home crowd. It doesn't excuse playing like a team that's eager for the season to end, especially so soon after a road trip that actually made a seventh straight appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs seem possible.

They've been outscored 9-2 in their past two home games, against Boston and Dallas. They played poorly for the first half of the game against Boston and for most of it against Dallas.

How can that be, when so much is at stake?

Is it fair to expect any more out of a team that has had ups and downs all season and wasn't looked on as a Stanley Cup contender anyway?

Yes, it is very fair.

From March 18-22, the Caps were on a three-game trip out west and they earned five of a possible six standings points in games at Anaheim, at Los Angeles and at San Jose. That's three of the best teams in hockey and even the most optimistic fan could not have expected five points in that stretch.

But they got them, so that makes it very reasonable to expect they'd get more than two in a four-game stretch against the Kings at home, the Predators on the road, the Bruins at home and the Stars at home. They've lost four straight since that successful trip, two in regulation and two in shootouts.

They've put themselves in position of probably having to win out in their final six games to keep their playoff streak alive. Four of those six are on the road.

Anybody want to bet on that?

The Caps set the bar themselves with that strong west coast trip. To come back and lay almost a goose egg in the next four games is baffling, inexcusable and, well, embarrassing.

If they do somehow get in the playoffs, it is difficult to foresee a very long run. No matter when the season ends, be it after the April 13 regular season finale against Tampa or after a first-round playoff loss, the Capitals have a list of questions a mile long they have to address.

This team doesn't need to be blown up. It has a lot of good pieces. It does need some major reworking.

Who gets to do that? Is Adam Oates, in his second year as head coach, going to take the fall? I'm not on the Oates-must-go wagon now, though seats seem to be filling fast. Peter Hassett of the website russianmachineneverbreaks.com posted a thorough and detailed column Wednesday that had a very clear conclusion. "The Capitals have to fire Adam Oates," Hassett wrote.

His points are strong and tough to debate. But I'm still curious to see what Oates can do when he isn't trying to make chicken salad while his pantry contains too many chicken feathers. I hope he gets another chance and a full deck to show what he can do.

As for general manager George McPhee, he's another of the many likable people in the Caps' organization. But he's responsible for assembling the hand Oates gets to play and, other than finally getting Evgeny Kuznetsov signed and in uniform, what has he done to improve this club? Why is the defense such a mess? What drastic steps is he willing to take to get the Capitals going in the right direction again?

If someone has to go after this, and someone probably does, McPhee is a much more likely candidate than Oates.

Before any of that happens, the Caps have six games to play. Maybe they pull it off and get into postseason. Most likely, it isn't going to happen. The fourth-longest consecutive playoff appearance streak in the NHL will come to an end.

That's bad enough. That it is coming to an embarrassing end makes it even worse.

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