- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2023

Missing Alex Ovechkin has the Washington Capitals in danger of missing the postseason. With their captain still on leave because of his father’s death, the Capitals have lost important ground in a competitive playoff race thanks to four straight losses — three of which have been without Ovechkin.

Even when the Russian star returns, however, teammates understand there’s not much margin for error. 

“We’re kind of running out of room,” winger T.J. Oshie told reporters after Saturday’s lopsided 4-1 defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes. “Our playoff hockey probably starts in this next week here, otherwise we’re going to be on the outside looking in.”

As of Sunday, the Capitals (28-22-6, 62 points) are indeed on the outside looking in. Their recent skid has moved them from the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference to out of the playoffs and narrowly trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins (63 points, first wild card spot) and the New York Islanders (63 points, second wild card spot). The Capitals find themselves in a race in which six teams are separated by no more than three points, with Florida (62 points), Buffalo (60) and Detroit (60) just behind Washington.

To reverse course and gain ground, Oshie said Washington has to start playing “playoff-style hockey” — which typically means upping the physicality, being willing to throw your body in front of a puck (or an opposing player) and bringing an intensity that helps cut down on mental lapses. 

“Everyone’s got to be on the same page,” Oshie said. 

Lately, the Capitals have strayed far away from that style. Washington has been outscored 17-7 over its four-game losing streak. And in addition to their problems scoring, the Capitals have seemed … slow. Coach Peter Laviolette has repeatedly called for his team to play faster, and he told reporters that the Hurricanes played at a “different gear” than his players did.

Last week, San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson also noted Washington’s lack of burst.

“I felt like we were maybe a little bit fresher than they were,” he said after San Jose’s 4-1 win on Feb. 12.

The Capitals, to be fair, were playing that game on a back-to-back, though players refused to use that as an excuse.

Washington’s issue with speed may be an inevitable consequence of being one of the oldest teams in the league. The Capitals have played 16 players this season who are at least 30 years old. According to Hockey Reference, the Capitals’ average age of their team weighted by time on ice is 31 — almost three years older than the league average of 28.3.

When they’re rolling, the Capitals have been able to make up for the speed deficit with strengths in other areas. Oshie noted how the absences of Ovechkin and defenseman John Carlson — who help slow down opposing teams with crushing hits — have hurt Washington of late. But in a silver lining for Washington, winger Tom Wilson (lower body) returned to the lineup Saturday after a seven-game absence and his presence should help his team bring that needed level of intensity. 

Wilson, who also missed the first few months recovering from a torn ACL, has played only nine games this season.

“We’ve got to get our confidence back,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to get our swagger back a little bit. … It’s an important time of year and every point matters.”

The schedule doesn’t get any easier. This week, Washington is slated for pivotal games as it hosts Detroit on Tuesday, the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday and the New York Rangers on Saturday.

With the Red Wings, in particular, on their heels, Tuesday’s game could have a do-or-die atmosphere. It’ll provide a perfect opportunity for the Capitals to bring that playoff-style of hockey that Oshie and others have called for.

“As a team, we all see how we feel out there, how our game is being played,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “It doesn’t look good. That’s for sure.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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