- CSNwashington.com - Sunday, February 23, 2014

Through 59 games this season, the Capitals rank 11th in the Eastern Conference and are on pace to finish with.88 points, their lowest full-season total since they failed to make the playoffs in 2006-07.

The Caps rank fourth in the conference in goals [171] but 12th in goals allowed [175].

They rank tied for fourth in the NHL on the power play [21.7 percent] but 17th on the penalty kill [81.3 percent].

“It’s a team that hasn’t played its best hockey yet,” Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “I thought we were starting to play well before the [Olympic] break.

“I believe they can be a lot better. The players believe they can be a lot better. Hopefully, when we come out of the break we’ll be healthy and play the way I think we’re capable and they think they’re capable of playing.”

When the Capitals return to game action Thursday night against the Florida Panthers they are expected to have defenseman Mike Green for the first time since Jan. 30 and Mikhail Grabovski for the first time since Jan. 24. But they may be without center Nicklas Backstrom, who sat out Team Sweden’s gold medal game on Sunday, reportedly with a migraine headache.

But if they hope to make the playoffs for the seventh straight season, they’ll need to climb over the Ottawa Senators, Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings to grab the eighth and final playoff spot.

“We’ve been in this situation before and we’ve got to play well down the stretch,” McPhee said. “It’s time.”

It won’t be easy. The Capitals face one of the most difficult schedules in the NHL in the final 23 games of the season. In the month of March alone, they face the Boston Bruins three times and the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers twice each.

“I’m always worried,” McPhee said. “There are no easy games in this league. We have a tough schedule, but everybody has a tough schedule. Let’s find out what we’re made of. “The pace we were playing at the last seven or eight games [before the break], a lot of our metrics were good. We were killing off penalties, we were staying out of the box. We had 21 five-on-five goals in eight games. We were playing the right way and that’s the way we have to play after the break.”

Much like last season, when the Caps needed a 15-2-2 finish to get into the playoffs, McPhee said the Capitals struggled with taking too many penalties, poor penalty killing and erratic goaltending through the first half of this season.

But he does not appear ready to make a change in goal, where Braden Holtby is expected to retain his job as No. 1, with Michal Neuvirth pushing him for the starting job and Philipp Grubauer waiting in Hershey.

“We like our goaltending,” McPhee said. “We drafted these players, we developed them and we think they’re capable of being really good in this league. They’ve showed they can be really good. And now’s the time.”

As for whether the Capitals are any better than their record indicates, McPhee said that will be proven over the final six weeks of the season.

“We can be better than we’ve played,” he said. “We’ve been here before. There are a couple teams that look like they’re a lock for the playoffs and a couple that probably won’t make it, and everybody else is living on the edge.

“It’s an excellent conference, a lot of good teams, and it’ll come down to the last week or so to see where people end up.

“There’s a lot of parity in the league. We’re right in the ix with everybody else fighting for a playoff spot. We’ve been here before. We’re looking forward to it and we’ll see what we’re made of.”


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