HARRIS: As playoff hopes dim, time for Caps to get teed off

Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates looks up at the scoreboard, in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in Washington. The Senators won 2-0. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates looks up at the scoreboard, in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in Washington. The Senators won 2-0. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

An old joke that used to make its way around these parts is not all that funny. Sadly, it’s generally been pretty true.

What’s red, white and blue and plays golf in May?

The Capitals, of course.

It’s not all that unfair. The Caps have made the playoffs 24 times in their history and been one-and-done 14 times. Included are six of nine appearances since the team reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. Heck, they’ve only played more than two series twice.

Playoff longevity and the Capitals are not often used in the same sentence.

This year, the joke may take on a new twist as the Caps could be playing golf on April 14. That’s one day after the regular season ends. Playoffs? Playoffs? With 32 games to play, the Caps are on the outside looking in.

The standings are tight and there’s plenty of time for the Caps to secure a postseason spot. But anyone who has seen the Caps play during their current six-game losing streak and sees any reason for serious hope is watching something different from most.

This is a team in trouble. Six losses in a row, the next five games on the road, a West Coast trip to Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose ahead. It doesn’t look good.

The Caps have scored seven goals in the six-game skid and three came in one game. In two shootout losses, they managed nothing in the shootouts. The team hasn’t been able to score when it counts, hasn’t been able to stop the opponent when it counts and has played a confusing game of goalie roulette that can’t be doing much for any of the trio’s confidence.

Other than that, things are fine.

Zach Leonsis, the son of owner Ted Leonsis, tweeted during Sunday’s loss to the New York Rangers: “Clearly not acceptable. Time to buckle up.” Leonsis was speaking strictly of the start against the Rangers and nothing more, but his message can be applied to the situation the Caps find themselves in now. It is clearly not acceptable and it is time to buckle up.

We’re used to this team getting in the playoffs and then breaking hearts. Not getting in would be an epic failure. For all its flaws, this team still has the NHL’s reigning MVP and leading goal-scorer in Alexander Ovechkin. It has one of the league’s best assist men in Nicklas Backstrom. It has experience, it has decent depth among its forwards.

It has a streak of six straight years of making the postseason. Sitting back and watching while 16 other teams get to chase the Stanley Cup won’t go over well, and it shouldn’t.

The fix won’t be simple, but as we’ve noted before: that’s why general manager George McPhee earns a big paycheck. The onus is on McPhee to provide second-year coach Adam Oates with what he needs and, right now, it isn’t there. If this team fails to make the playoffs, Oates isn’t the one who should be worried about a tap on the shoulder and a call into the office of the boss.

Look no further than the defense and you’ll see why Oates may be gray or bald before too much longer. McPhee needs to take one of the three goalies — right now it doesn’t much matter if it is Braden Holtby, now-in-Hershey Philipp Grubauer or Michal Neuvirth — and package him with one or more players and/or prospects and deliver a real, live, veteran defenseman. If he wants to make some other moves to shake up the locker room, that would be OK, too. In fact, it would probably be good.

But this team really needs another defenseman in the worst way, preferably one who thinks defense first.

On Tuesday against Ottawa (a 2-0 loss), the Caps left defenseman John Erskine in street clothes as a healthy scratch. That left them with Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmitt and 19-year-old Connor Carrick on defense. That’s three proven NHL-caliber players, one non-rookie who is still feeling his way in Orlov and two rookies in Schmitt and Carrick who will probably be fine NHL defensemen eventually but probably don’t belong in the league right now.

In his big three, Oates has at his disposal one who is more offensively minded in Green, one who is more defensively minded in Alzner and one who can fill both roles in U.S. Olympian Carlson. Finding an available defenseman in the Alzner mode shouldn’t be all that difficult, should it?

The NHL trade deadline is March 5, but this needs to be done before that, if at all possible. Because if this team continues on its current path, the first tee is going to be calling early.

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