- At the moment, the signs aren't good that the Caps season will end with celebrations. (Photo: Associated Press)
This post is the latest in my irregular series, "Notes from an armchair in Pentagon City."
In the early morning hours of January 2, on my way out of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, I feel into conversation with a Penguins beat writer. Talk inevitably turned into whether the Capitals would (or could) beat the Penguins in a playoff series (this was when it still appeared that the road to the Prince of Wales Trophy would go through the Steel City). My new friend was convinced that the Capitals did not have the talent on defense or in net to win four out of seven against Pittsburgh. I deferred the question, preferring to let another couple months of the season take its course before deciding one way or another.
But a larger question, whether the Caps were in fact among the elite in the Eastern Conference, has been turning over in my mind ever since and in Tuesday night's 3-2 overtime loss to the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers, we got some more clues leading us to an answer.
Let's dispel one fallacy right away: If the Caps end this season with more playoff disappointment, it likely won't be because of the two young goalies. In my opinion, Semyon Varlamov has earned himself the number one goalie spot based on both performance (his .926 save percentage entering Tuesday's game was 7th among all NHL goalies, while his 2.22 goals against average is 5th among all NHL goalies, though this is based on a relatively small sample size of 18 appearances and 16 starts) and --for the time being, anyway-- health, with Michal Neuvirth departing after the first period of Tuesday's game with a lower-body injury.
Against the Flyers, Neuvirth gave up one goal which was his fault (coming much too far out of net and allowing Jeff Carter an easy wrap-around chance), and Varlamov gave up two goals, neither of which were his fault (someone on defense should have cleaned out Claude Giroux before scoring the second Flyers goal on a rebound and should have similarly dealt with James van Riemsdyk, who was screening Varlamov on Andrej Maszaros' game-winning goal). But in between, Neuvirth and Varlamov combined to make three point-blank stops on chances that would have put the game out of sight after 40 minutes.
Those Philadelphia chances derived in part from a lack of concentration in the defensive zone by the Capitals. It didn't just show in Neuvirth's over commitment on the first goal or in the sleepwalking by Marcus Johansson and Scott Hannan on the second goal, but in, for example, the lazy clearing pass from Jeff Schultz that led to a golden chance for Mike Richards all of 20 seconds into the second period. The Flyers are too strong and too aggressive on both ends of the ice to throw away such opportunities
As in Friday night's loss to the best team in the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks, the Capitals were unable to match Philadelphia's tempo and intensity for longer than 20 minutes at a time. As against Vancouver, it was in the third period when Washington began to step up its attack and the Flyers let their own concentration slip (with defensive zone turnovers by Ville Leino and Richards leading directly to the Caps' two tying goals). Stanley Cup playoff games aren't won with 20 good minutes.
One more concerning point for Capitals fans: the active roster you saw Tuesday are the guys you're going to get for the foreseeable future. Eric Fehr, who seemed to be rounding into form in the early part of this month, will miss at least 3-4 weeks (and likely much more time than that). Given Tom Poti's inability to stay on the ice (he's played just 21 of a possible 47 games this season), it is unreasonable to expect him to be the same stabilizing force he was last season, when he had 24 points and a +26.
And then there is Alexander Semin, recently placed on injured reserve (lower-body injury) and goalless since November 28. It would be foolish to expect him to approach his scintillating form from the early part of this season, when he recorded three hat tricks and, in one nine-game stretch between October 30 and November 17, scored nine goals and recorded 17 points.
Semin's countryman, Alex Ovechkin, is in much the same boat. Though he did score his first goal in five full games Tuesday night, and though his effort night-in and night-out has been faultless, the numbers cannot be avoided. The Capitals captain is on pace to score the fewest regular season goals and record the fewest regular season points in his NHL career. There are questions about Employee Number Eight's health as well. Though, to Ovechkin's credit, he has refused to harp on it or use it as an excuse, one does not get cortisone shots just for fun.
Ovechkin's decline mirrors that of his team as a whole. Through 47 games the Capitals have scored 133 goals for an average of 2.8 goals per game, a startling decline from the 318 goals scored in last year's 82-game regular season (3.9 goals per game). General Manager George McPhee cautioned before the start of this season that it would be foolish to expect goals to be scored at a similar pace to last year's, but surely he had in mind a total more like Philadelphia's 158 goals in 46 games (3.4 goals per game), or Pittsburgh's 150 goals in 47 games (3.2 goals per game).
For me, the signs are becoming clear in a way that they weren't on New Year's Day. The Road to the Prince of Wales Trophy goes over the Ben Franklin Bridge instead of through the Fort Pitt Tunnel at the moment, but my answer would be the same: Unless at least one (and, more probably two or three) of the above-mentioned trends change, the answer to the question, "Are the Capitals among the elite of the Eastern Conference, not just on the line-up sheet, but on the ice?" the answer would be a resounding "No, not quite."