The Washington Capitals have already played more than half of their games this season, but the All-Star break brings a good time to take stock in the team and take a look at the remainder of the regular season. There have been plenty of “What’s wrong with the Caps?” stories written, so we’ll take a look at thing to be optimistic about in the final 34 games.
1. Playing with the kitties. The Caps have three games in the first three weeks after the break with the Florida Panthers, who are tied with the Caps with 55 points. These head-to-head match-ups will be critical factors in which team wins the Southeast Division and gets the third seed in the conference. The Caps hold a significant advantage over the Panthers with four more wins (Florida has and outrageous 11 OTLs) to hold a tiebreaker.
Florida has also stalled since the new year, going just 3-3-4 in their last 10 games.
2. Ovi’s legs will be rested. Okay, so it’s not optimal that the captain was handed a three-game suspension for his hit against Zbynek Michalek in the Pittsburgh game. But the almost two-week layoff — with the All-Star break figured in — will allow Ovechkin to rest up and get some of the bumps and bruises out of the way. Plus, he didn’t have to go through all the trouble and travel of the All-Star game. Who needs another weekend in Ottawa in the middle of winter anyway?
When he comes back, you can bet he’ll be plenty motivated. He started to pick his physical game up in the last couple of weeks, and you have to bet that the suspension will be fuel for his fire.
3. Road warriors. They took three-of-six points on their most-recent road trip, perhaps a sign that they might be shaking the season-long funk they’ve had on the road. There are only two teams in the conference that have fewer than the Caps’ eight road wins this season, and if they can tread water on the road and keep up their winning ways at home (18-6-1, 2nd best home power play, 8th best home penalty kill), it should be enough for them to win the division anyway.
They have to play better on the road though, because they have separate four-game and five-game roadies in the second half.
4. Bullies of the Southleast. The Caps play 13 of their final 34 games against Southeast Division opponents, which include the aforementioned Panthers, the free-falling Winnipeg Jets (3-6-1 in their last 10), the 13th in the conference Tampa Bay Lightning, who have a -29 goal differential, and the last in the conference Carolina Hurricanes, who have just 18 wins all season. The Caps have to make hay against the opponents they play against so often.
The path to the playoffs will be a LOT easier for the Caps if they can once again play the bully role in the Southeast.
5. Trading places. The NHL Trade Deadline is February 27 at 3:00 pm EST. GM George McPhee has made significant deals in recent seasons at the deadline, and this season probably will be no exception. Now, what the Caps need might is open for debate, and could change between now and the deadline. But now is the time when NHL GMs are scouring their colleagues rosters for pieces that might put them over the hump. There are about a half-dozen teams that already don’t have a realistic chance at the playoffs, and rumors about player availability are already floating around.
The Caps seem to have a couple spare parts on the NHL roster, and several bargaining chips in the minors. McPhee has a delicate decision though on what or how much to mortgage at the deadline to boost the team this season.
So see, it’s not all gloom and doom. All the Caps have to do is make the playoffs and anything can (and usually does) happen. And who knows, after coming into the “second season” the last couple of years as top-of-the-conference favorites, maybe this Capitals team will relish their underdog role and surprise people, instead of the other way around.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.