Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Will the Capitals make the playoffs?

The Capitals playoff chances took a potentially serious blow last night with a 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center.

Buffalo now sits two points ahead of the Capitals in the standings for the Eastern Conferences' eighth and final playoff spot.

Each team has five games remaining on its schedule.

So, how serious are the Capitals chances of missing the playoffs?

In one instance not that serious. The Capitals are only two points behind the Sabres and have more non-shootout wins than the Sabres. So, should both teams finish tied in points, the Capitals would qualify for the playoffs.

But, based on remaining strength of schedule, the Sabres may have the upper hand.

Buffalo's final five games are at home against the Penguins and Maple Leafs with road contests against the Leafs, Flyers and Bruins.

On paper that looks tough as the Pens, Flyers and Bruinis are all going to finish in the top five of the Eastern Conference standings. But, the Sabres have won two of three meetings with the Penguins this season and are 2-2-1 against the Bruins.

The Sabres and Pens haven't met since Feb. 19 when Buffalo routed Pittsburgh 6-2, and will be facing Sidney Crosby for the first time this season.

The Leafs were officially eliminated from playoff contention last night and have only won 11 games since Jan. 13, so not an arduous task there.

Washington's remaining five games aren't much easier. They have road games against the Bruins, Lightning and Rangers and home games against the Canadiens and Panthers.

The Capitals have won two of three against the Bruins this season including a 4-3 in Boston on March 10. But, Boston has won five of its last six and are sure to be looking for revenge against the Capitals.

Washington is 3-1-1 against the Lightning this season, but both of the losses have come in Tampa.

Both remaining home games are very winnable as the Capitals are 3-0-0 against the Candiens this season with none of the games being particularly close.

Both home games versus the Panthers this season have also been blowouts by a combined 7-0 score.

Neither team has an easy schedule the final five games. Both teams have games against teams they have played well against this season and have winnable home games left.

But, the tougher road schedule goes to the Capitals and are in two buildings they haven't won in this season.

They haven't defied the odds, yet, this season.

Hopefully these last five games will be different.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Season defining game defines Capitals

The Washington Capitals hosted the Buffalo Sabres last night with a chance to take full grasp of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

They failed, and they failed miserably.

The Capitals had several chances early to take control of the game, but were unable to get anything past Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller.

Jason Chimera had two chances in tight stopped by Miller, and a dash to the net by Alex Ovechkin was poked away by a Buffalo defender before he could get a shot off.

Cody McCormick scored at 8:45 of the first to give the Sabres a 1-0 and complete control of the game.

Goals by Drew Stafford at 18:05 of the first and Thomas Vanek at 2:31 gave the Sabres a 3-0 lead that the Verizon Center faithful knew was going to be too much to overcome.

The loss doesn't completely end any chance of the Capitals making the playoffs. But, a game that gave the Capitals a chance to control their own destiny ended up being the game that I feel completely defines the team's season.

There are times this season the Capitals have had a chance to take control of their season and have failed.

Two Friday's ago, the Capitals carried a four-game winning streak into Winnipeg with a chance to more or less end the Jets playoff chances and further solidify their playoff seeding.

They lost 3-2.

Last Friday, playing the Jets at Verizon Center, the Capitals built an early 3-0 lead and had the home crowd in a frenzy.

They lost 4-3 in overtime and blew a point they desperately needed.

They came back with a strong performance on Sunday against the Minnesota Wild, but lets be honest. The Wild have been on a downward slide since December, so an impressive win that was not.

If you want to go back even further, the Capitals ended a three game losing streak on Feb. 17 with a 2-1 win on the road against the Panthers by scoring twice in the third period. They followed that with a another three-game skid.

After three straight wins Feb. 24-28, the Capitals, again, lost three straight games.

Some will blame injuries to Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom as reasons why the Capitals have been so inconsistent. But, blowing a 3-0 lead at home and getting blown out on that same ice sheet four days later has nothing to do with missing pieces.

All season long, the Capitals have failed to deliver when it matters most.

Why should any of us have thought last night would be any different?

Monday, March 26, 2012

It's like a Game 7

After practice this morning at Kettler Capitals IcePlex, Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter uttered seven words that capture the course the Capitals season has taken.

It's like the seventh game of the playoffs.

Hunter is referring to the Capitals home tilt tonight with the Buffalo Sabres; a contest that features the two teams currently seeded 8th and 9th in the Eastern Conference standings.

Washington and Buffalo enter the game with 84 points each with the Capitals owning the tiebreaker by having more regulation and overtime wins then the Sabres.

Each team has six games remaining including tonight's matchup, so a loss by either team would not immediately kill either teams hopes of making the playoffs.

However, considering the expectations coming into this seaosn brought on by four years of playoff disappointments and the acquisition of five proven veteran players in the offseason, a loss to the Sabres on home ice this late in the season won't do the Capitals any favors.

Plus, with three of their final five games on the road in Boston, Tampa Bay and New York, the Capitals can't afford to give up anymore points at home.

Capitals General Manager George McPhee brought in Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun for games like tonights.

After crumbling in the playoffs for four straight years, McPhee knew the Capitals needed some grit and leadership asserted into his line up.

That grit will be put to the ultimate test tonight. Of the five, only Troy Brouwer and Roman Hamrlik are likely to get sweaters for the contest. Joel Ward and Vokoun are still out hurt, and Halpern has been a healthy scratch several times this month including Sunday against the Minnesota Wild.

Considering how well Alex Ovechkin played pulling double duty Sunday, don't be surprised if Halpern is, again, watching the game from the friendly confines of the Verizon Center press box.

Since winning their first seven games to start the season, the Capitals have dealt with adversity in a myriad of areas. They've endured a coaching change, long-term absences of both Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom, plus long scoring droughts from both Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.

They've also overcome a win a few, lose a few pattern to somehow be right in the playoff hunt on March 27.

The Capitals have their destiny in their hands and at home just like they did in 2008, 2009 and 2010 when they dropped Game 7's at home to the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens.

It's like the seventh game of the playoffs?

You bet it is.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Capitals are rocked in Chicago

A team wearing Washington Capitals jersey's took the ice tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center, but it wasn't a team ready to compete.

The Capitals were thoroughly outplayed and outclassed by the Blackhawks in a 5-2 route. Washington was routinely beat to loose pucks and outhustled as they struggled from the opening faceoff to generate consistent offensive pressure and defend their own net.

All four Chicago goals were the result of having superior talent, but a team that clearly plays together and makes the necessary sacrifices you need to win at this time of the year.

The Capitals could not keep up with the Blackhawks passing ability on the games first goal and Washington netminder Michael Neuvirth couldn't keep up with the puck.

A shot that deflected off of a Capitals defender and into the middle of the slot where Duncan Keith easily shot the loose puck past an unsuspecting Neuvirth.

On the 'Hawks second goal, Viktor Stalberg outskated Dmitri Orlov to the loose puck and because of a bad angle taken by Orlov easily got to the net. Stalberg deeked left and sent the puck into the net while Neuvirth was still moving into position to attempt to make the save.

It was 2-0 less then 8 minutes into the game and the Blackhawks never looked back.

The Capitals did strike twice in the second period of goals by Mike Knuble and Alex Oveckin. Ovechkin's goal was a classic show of skill as he deeked around the Chicago defender before beating Corey Crawford with a wrist shot.

Knuble's goal was followed by two more Chicago goals and Ovechkin's was followed by a third period of mostly uninspired play by the Capitals.

After the win over the Islanders on Tuesday in which the Capitals overcame a three-goal deficit, Dale Hunter talked about having great leaders in the Capitals' locker room.

Where was that leadership Sunday night?

Who made sure the Capitals came out with the right attitude and put forth a strong, consistent effort from the drop of the puck?

The bottomline is no matter how they try and rationalize their performances, the Capitals are not good enough to compete with the upper echelon of the NHL this season.

I read a post on the Washington Posts Capitals Insider blog this week where a fan said he would love to see a first round Caps-Penguins matchup this season.

My question is why?

If fans thought being swept by the Lightning was embarassing last season, how do they think a first round meeting with the Penguins would turn out?

Sunday night, the Capitals demonstrated once again why they aren't a Stanley Cup caliber team.

I'm starting to think they aren't even a playoff team.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Caps shootout win over Islanders a reminder

What can I say about last night's game between the Capitals and Islanders? Words like improbable, impossible, exciting and thrilling come to mind, but I've decided to pass on using any of those adjectives to categorize last nights contest.

I've decided to use a noun; reminder.

The definition of reminder is as follows; a person or thing that serves to remind.

The Capitals certainly aren't a thing, but they are a group of person's that reminded their fan base and the rest of the hockey world last night how good they aren't.

Washington fell behind by three goals twice in the second period to a team that is next to last in the Eastern Conference standings and have a goal differential of minus-47.

For the first two periods last night, the Islanders routinely beat the Capitals to pucks and had more traffic in front of Michael Neuvirth then Washington could have hoped to have had in front of Evgeni Nabokov.

Nabokov was so untouched through the first two periods he needed a five hour energy pill to prevent himself from falling asleep.

It wasn't until Alex Ovechkin's goal with 53 seconds left in the second period did the Capitals start getting traffic in front of Nabokov.

Ovechkin's second goal which tied the game with 9:45 to play was the result of him chasing the puck to the net and not giving up.

The Capitals constantly talk about getting in traffic in front of the opposing net and doing the workmen-like things they will need to do in order to successful in the spring.

They did some of those things in their two wins this past weekend and stated they feel they have finally turned the corner on their season.

But, for two periods last night against one of the worst teams in the league, the Capitals fell back on the same lazy, "we have more talent then you" mindset they have had for the last four years.

One game is certainly not enough to judge, but for a team that has struggled all season long to say they have turned the corner and then get outworked by an inferior team doesn't suggest they have made any improvements.

Maybe the improvement is they can come back from a three-goal deficit instead of a two-goal one.

I say there is no improvement.

Same old story.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Three game streak could be a tease

For the second time in two weeks the Washington Capitals have won three consecutive games. The circumstances surrouding the previous three game win streak are different then the current one, but also similiar.

The previous three game winsteak which went from Feb. 24-28 followed a three game losing streak in which the Capitals suffered a 5-0 shutout loss and a one-goal loss to a divisional opponent. There current three game streak also follows a three game losing steak that includes a 5-0 shutout loss and a one-goal loss to a divisional opponent.

Each win streak also includes a late third period rally that resulted in an overtime win on a goal by Alex Ovechkin.

Each win streak has parallels, but the same question that arises is the same question that followed the last streak.

Have the Capitals finally turned their season around?

There is evidence to suggest they have. In wins over the weekend over the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and reeling Toronto Maple Leafs, the Capitals clogged up the neutral zone, got traffic in front of the opposing net and showed an ability to control the puck in the offensive zone with quick, efficient passes.

The Capitals were able to score four times on Vezina Trophy winning goalie Tim Thomas on Saturday through the first two periods due to the above mentioned factors and scored the game-clinching goal Sunday 42 seconds into the third period for the same reasons.

Washington defenders also did their part by keeping traffic out of the eyes of netminders Tomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth for the most part; allowing each to clearly see pucks being sent their way.

That effort allowed Neuvirth to record his third shutout of the season on Sunday as the Caps blanked the Leafs.

However, I'm slow to say the Capitals have finally turned a corner in their season. Against the Lightning last Thursday, it took the Capitals two periods to finally start playing the way Dale Hunter and everyone else in the hockey world have been telling them they need to play all season.

On Saturday, the Capitals beat a Bruins team that is just 4-5-1 in their last 10 games and was blasted on Sunday by the Penguins, 5-2. Not the best way to follow an embarassing home loss.

Though the Leafs have played better since the hiring of Randy Carlyle, they are just 1-7-2 in their last 10 games and were only down one goal entering the third period Sunday.

Brooks Laich said after Sunday's game he feels the Capitals have finally become comfortable in coach Dale Hunter's system and solidified their line up.

That very well may be true, but Laich's opinionis based off of wins against three struggling teams. Yes, one is the defending Stanley Cup champion, but one that is not at the top of its game.

The Capitals are about to embark on a 5-game road trip that will in all likelyhood determine whether or not they are a participant in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. The trip includes games against the New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers.

If they Capitals have truly made the improvements Laich was clamoring about, they will win at the Islanders and Jets and take one of the final three games of the trip to stay among the top eightin the East and maybe even pass the Florida Panthers for the Southeast Division lead.

But, if they haven't, the Capitals could lose serious ground in their quest for a fifth straight division title and playoff appearance.

The evidence of improvement has been shown, but these flashes have been seen in the past. So far, they've proven to be just glimpses of potential and not an actual turn in the Capitals season.

Hopefully this time, the flashes are real.