The season is more than half over now and the Capitals are still never sure quite what to expect from night to night.
They have primarily turned to a rookie goalie who was expected to spend most of his time at AHL Hershey. Their top two lines have shifted in recent days with stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom now playing apart. Only one team in the entire league allows more shots on goal per game (34.2) than Washington.
It all adds up to a bit of unease as the Caps (22-16-7, 51 points) grind their way through 17 games in 31 days before the NHL takes a break for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia next month. Right now they remain in second place in the Metropolitan Division. But with back-to-back games set against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night at Verizon Center and the Pittsburgh Penguins on the road Wednesday, that’s actually not all that secure a spot.
“It’s one of those games you couldn’t find [energy],” forward Jason Chimera said of a disappointing 2-1 shootout loss to Buffalo, the NHL’s worst team, at home on Sunday afternoon. “We got a point out it, but we’ve got to move on from there. We’ve got a big week ahead of us. We’ve got to get ready.”
Indeed, they must revive quickly to grab points from the Sharks (28-12-6, 62 points), who have the league’s fifth-best record, and the Penguins, who lead the Eastern Conference and are third overall.
Pittsburgh (33-12-2, 68 points) has made the division race a laugher. Washington is the closest team to it and has little hope of catching its old rival, which has been riddled with injuries all season and yet still opened up a huge lead.
That leaves a jumbled playoff race in the Eastern Conference. The Caps are even with the New York Rangers in points, though with two fewer games played. But they are just a point ahead of the fourth-place Philadelphia Flyers in the Metropolitan and the Detroit Red Wings, who are in fourth place in the Atlantic Division. Those two teams hold the final playoff positions.
Behind them are Toronto, Ottawa, New Jersey, Carolina and Columbus. None of those teams is particularly good. But all entered play Monday night within five points of Washington and are in position to pass it with a good week and some help.
That’s just what the Caps hope to avoid against San Jose and Pittsburgh followed by games at Columbus and the Rangers over the weekend. They have secured five points out of six in their last three games. But that shootout loss at home to the Sabres again raised questions. Coach Adam Oates thought his team looked tired after emotional wins over the Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning. Still, he lamented the dropped point, which could hurt later in the season.
Only five teams in the NHL have fewer regulation or overtime wins than Washington (14), which has gained the extra standings point eight times via a shootout. That will prove crippling if its Stanley Cup playoff chances come down to a tiebreak. The league uses regulation or overtime wins as its first test to see who qualifies.
It doesn’t help that three players – goalie Michal Neuvirth, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and forward Martin Erat – have all asked for trades this season. Neuvirth started in Friday’s win over the Maple Leafs, but was not active on Sunday against Buffalo.
Rookie goalie Philipp Grubauer has started 13 of Washington’s last 18 games while Braden Holtby, the No. 1 entering the season, primarily watches. Holtby was inactive on Friday as Neuvirth got his first start since Nov. 22. The Caps were off on Monday so no word on who will get the nod in goal for the Sharks game. Grubauer, however, was solid again against Buffalo. He stopped 30 of 31 shots against the Sabres. But given his short track record, there are no guarantees his chances to start will continue unabated.
“[Grubauer] is playing good, he looks solid in the net,” Oates said after the Buffalo loss. “Every guy is going to have his moments, for sure. But you can’t overread that…He’s doing good, but you don’t want to overstate it, either.”