With the end of the Olympic tournament, the attention of the hockey world will shift back to the NHL and the final quarter of the regular season. One point out of the final playoff spot, the Caps face an uphill climb to reach the postseason for the seventh consecutive season.
In the last full NHL season, it took 92 points to make the playoffs. The playoff format has changed since then, but with the same number of teams qualifying his will be about the number of points teams will need to earn the last spot.
The Caps currently have 63 points with 24 games remaining on their schedule. As they currently own no tiebreakers, the team will likely need at least 30 points in those last 24 games. That would be a record slightly above .500. Doesn’t sound too hard, right?
Well, it does when you look at the schedule.
The schedule makers did the Caps no favors in the final quarter of the season. Three games against Boston, two against Pittsburgh, and a west coast trip with matchups against Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Jose are what the team faces to close out the season. Of the final 24 games, 16 come against teams currently in playoff position.
The Caps stumbled into the Olympic break going only 5-7-3 in their last 15 games, giving no indication that they are capable of earning 30 points in 24 games against a difficult schedule.
And that was before Russia’s Olympic collapse.
The Olympics did not go as well as Alex Ovechkin would have hoped. Russia once again failed to earn a medal after falling in the quarterfinals to Finland despite being the host nation. Much of the blame for the disappointing result is being laid upon Ovechkin who scored only one goal in the tournament.
There is also the situation with his father. Mikhail Ovechkin underwent surgery early last week after suffering some heart problems while watching one of Russia’s preliminary games. Ovechkin is very close with his father and there’s no telling how this may affect his play when he returns to the ice.
Just what will Ovechkin’s mindset be when he returns?
The same can be asked of Nicklas Backstrom, who had to watch Sweden lose in the gold medal game to Canada after testing positive for a controlled substance. The substance is found in his allergy medication and not banned the NHL, but Backstrom will return from Sochi empty handed despite Sweden earning the silver medal.
John Carlson played incredibly well against the world’s best players, Marcus Johnasson earned a silver medal and Martin Erat actually scored a goal, but none of that may matter. As Ovechkin and Backstrom go, so go the Capitals. If neither player can get out of their own heads, the team will have a hard time making the playoff push.
They may have a tough time anyway depending on what the team looks like.
In the final two games before the break Julien Brouillette, Connor Carrick and Patrick Wey all played on defense. Playing three AHL defensemen for an extended stretch is not a formula for success.
The break provided time for injuries to heal and hopefully Mikhail Grabovski, Mike Green, John Erskine, and Brooks Laich will be ready to play. They better be, as it now appears unlikely Evgeny Kuznetsov will make his Capitals’ debut this spring.
Plus, it seems doubtful the team will make any moves at the trade deadline. General Manager George McPhee notoriously hates overpaying for deadline rental players and, unless he can find a buyer for Michal Neuvirth or Martin Erat, will most likely stand pat.
Except for the possible return of defenseman Jack Hillen who is still recovering from a fractured tibial plateau suffered in October, there’s no cavalry coming for the Caps.
Given the logjam of teams still in contention for a wildcard spot, many of those teams will make moves. The Caps will face a tough schedule with a beat up defense, holes on their roster, and a distracted Ovechkin. While the Caps stand pat, the teams around them will get better.
Thirty points in 24 games? It doesn’t sound that hard, but the Caps face an uphill battle to make the playoffs.