Now that the Olympics are over, it's time for hockey to get back to being just hockey again. The NHL season resumes Tuesday night and by Thursday, every team will have played at least one game. The Capitals begin again Thursday in Florida.
That's the first of 23 games left on the Caps schedule and the post-Olympics stretch is all about one thing: Securing your playoff spot if you're already in position and gaining a spot if you're not.
The Caps, with 63 points in their first 59 games, would not be playing for the Stanley Cup if the playoffs were starting now. What will things look like come April 13, when the regular season ends?
If you shake the good ol' 8-ball right now, the most likely answer it will return about the Caps and their playoff chances is "not likely." Of course, you could have said that about the Caps at this stage several times in recent seasons and they've made it six years in a row. So a better answer might be "who knows?"
History doesn't favor the Caps. After the Vancouver Games in 2010, the Detroit Red Wings were the only team not in playoff position coming out of the break to crack the postseason, according to a post-Olympics graphic done by ESPN the Magazine. They were only one point out and finished 16-3-2.
Odds don't favor the Caps, either. PlayoffStatus.com gives the Caps a 16 percent chance of making the postseason.
None of that means it won't happen.
Brooks Laich, the veteran Caps forward, said after a recent practice that players do pay attention and start figuring in their heads what needs to be done. Caps coach Adam Oates said he does, too, though not necessarily this early.
Hey, it isn't early anymore. The season is about 75 percent over. Let's do some playoff math and see if the Caps have a good, medicore or poor chance of actually participating when the postseason rolls around.
A good rule of thumb is it will take from 92 (risky) to 94 (safe) points to get in, though final point totals guarantee nothing. In 2007, the Oilers missed with 95 points and the 2011 Stars did the same. The Flames didn't get in with 94 in 2011. But in 2010, Philadelphia needed just 88 points to make it and Boston got in with 91. Two years ago, 92 points was enough for Washington and Ottawa to gain entry.
Let's use 93 as a best-guess number and say the Caps need to find a way to get 30 points out of their remaining 23 games. That is very doable, though it requires the Caps to play a bit better than they have thus far. They need 1.304 points per game and they've managed 1.067 thus far.
The real problem, though, isn't piling up the points but the teams standing in the way of the Caps piling up those points. The late portion of the schedule is definitely the heaviest for the Caps as it is backloaded with power teams.
Washington has only 10 games at home, where it is 17-10-4 thus far.
It has 13 on the road, where it is 10-13-5.
Here comes the fun number: 16 of the remaining 23 games are against teams currently in playoff position. Even if the Caps sweep the seven against non-playoff teams, that leaves them 16 points short with 16 games against the NHL's better squads.
That's a difficult road and it gets harder with every one of the seven games against non-playoff teams that doesn't result in two points.
Three games are left against Boston.
Two remain against Pittsburgh. The Los Angeles Kings are ahead twice. Another game remains against the defending Cup champion Blackhawks. Particularly daunting is a three-game road trip to Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.
Six of the remaining games are against teams that have already accumulated at least 80 points.
Let's shake that 8-ball again and see what it says. Wait, it just ran out of the room.
But, while it doesn't look good, recent history shows the Caps know how to finish strong.
In 2011, the Caps went 14-3-1 in April and made the playoffs with 107 points.
Just last season, Washington went 11-1-1 in April and secured a playoff bid in the lockout-shortened season.
The NHL certainly has what it wanted for the homestretch. Only five of the league's teams can reasonably be counted as out of the playoff chase. In each conference, the current No. 8 team has 64 points. In the Eastern Conference, there are four more with at least 61. In the Western Conference, there are four more with at least 60.
To make the math even more simple, the Caps are most likely going to get in if they go 15-8 in their remaining games. Picking up that extra point for some of those losses coming in overtime will be a big help.
It doesn't look doable based on what we've seen thus far, an inconsistent team that can win a big game but then turn around and lose one it shouldn't lose.
General manager George McPhee and Oates have said they think this team's best days are ahead. They have to be and, if they are, maybe that playoff streak does grow to seven seasons.
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