by Jack Anderson, special to District Sports Page
Amidst the most tumultuous period since their resurgence, the Washington Capitals are fast approaching the do or die stage of a season gone horribly wrong.
Making matters worse, they’ll have to face it without Alex Ovechkin for the time being after he was suspended three games for a check on Zbynek Michalek in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
For Ovechkin antagonists, the suspension rekindles the debate over the Russian winger’s physical style of play and in their minds validates the perception that he is indeed a dirty player.
And while Ovechkin has been forced to modify his game since several previous incidents landed him in hot water with the league during the 2009-10 season, that’s not really the issue at stake here.
What’s more important is how these Caps will fare without their best player during what could turn into a pivotal three-game stretch for a team on the fringe of the playoff picture.
It’s funny to think that two seasons ago controversy followed Ovechkin everywhere he went. The Capitals were rock stars on top of the NHL world and the multiple suspensions doled out to the best player in the league did little to affect the status of a team accustomed to dominating the regular season standings. Ovechkin was essential to success, but the Capitals were so good, a few games without him did little to sidetrack an impressive 2009-10 campaign.
It’s a bit different now that the Caps are a shell of their former selves. The anti-Ovechkinites can revel in his latest crime, but for those in Washington there’s no time to argue the finer points of his crushing hit on Michalek. Wins are all that matter anymore.
Washington plays in one final game before the All-Star break and the outlook for Tuesday night’s matchup with the Boston Bruins is bleak. The Capitals will be without Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green as they prepare to take on one of the NHL’s deepest teams. The defending cup champions have rolled through the year with efficiency while the Capitals have sputtered, making this and every matchup hugely important.
That’s a far cry from years past when the Caps could coast their way through the back half of the schedule. Gone are the days where Boudreau’s boys could check in for a few periods in February and roll through just about anyone. With Dale Hunter, every game is a grind and many of them have been ending in disappointing fashion.
Having lost three of four and playing far from stellar hockey since a putrid west coast road trip, the Caps are in trouble. After a string of cupcake-soft matchups in January, nine of their next 16 games come against the Bruins (twice), Rangers, Senators, Maple Leafs and the Southeast Division-leading Panthers (three times) – all teams who factor into the playoff picture.
Even during Boudreau’s successful rein, the Caps never displayed the mental fortitude necessary to step up in the spotlight. With the season hanging in the balance, Hunter has a chance to turn the page on how this team handles adversity. Their mettle will sorely tried against teams just as desperate as they are and if Washington can emerge out the other side with a postseason berth, maybe just maybe they’ll finally understand they can no longer take success for granted.
Scary thing is, they might have to discover that without Ovechkin in the lineup. With the Capitals barely keeping their heads above water, these next three games could resonate in April.
Thin ice to be sure.
Jack Anderson is a special contributor to District Sports Page. He has been covering Washington, DC sports as a credentialed reporter since 2009. He covers the Capitals for NHL Home Ice and TSN Radio and is a freelance writer having contributed to the Washington Times, Associated Press and NBC Washington. You can follow him on twitter @jackandersonIII.