You almost knew that it was coming.
For 24 minutes and 51 seconds on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals were playing like a team that needed to win a hockey game. They were being aggressive in their forecheck, finishing hits, and had gotten two goals from two grinders. It was shaping up to be a promising evening.
And then just like that, it was gone.
The Capitals allowed three unanswered goals to be scored on them in the game’s next 20 minutes, turning a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 deficit. Brooks Laich tipped an equalizer past Cam Ward with just under three minutes left in the game to salvage a point, but inevitability eventually caught up to the Caps when Justin Faulk scored the winner with 82 seconds left in overtime. The play started on a whiff by Dennis Wideman, allowing an odd-man rush.
It was a loss that only this incarnation of the Capitals could come up with, and it came at the worst possible time. The effort was nice. The late goal was nice. But in the end, it didn’t matter.
“This time of year, you can’t judge yourself by your intentions, it’s by your results,” a visibly distressed and morose Laich said after the game. “It’s a game we had to have. It’s tough to take right now, but we’ll move on.”
But how can you explain a loss like this? How do you explain this, as a whole, in general?
As poorly suited as Dale Hunter’s system and lineup decisions are for the type of roster that he has, one that is (supposedly) laden with top-level talent, these types of results are inexcusable. The Carolina Hurricanes are not a good hockey team, and the Caps gave away a two-goal lead against them playing a system that is designed to keep leads.
It all goes back to what I said in December: the Capitals don’t know what they want to be.
As I said then, and still believe now, they have built a team that is designed to score goals, and they have committed the next eleven years of their franchise’s leadership and $100 million dollars to being an offensive club. Yet, they have completely changed their system and suffocated what made them so great based on one extraordinary playoff series loss that required one of the greatest postseason goaltending performances in the history of the NHL.
They are continually forcing square pegs into round holes, and though the continued absence of Nicklas Backstrom has not helped, this just isn’t the year.
The Capitals don’t deserve better because we want them to deserve better. The Capitals don’t deserve better because they are “our team,” and they don’t deserve better because of what Caps fans have had to suffer through during the franchises’ existence.
In fact, from a hockey perspective, maybe missing the playoffs will be a good thing for this team. In all likelihood, it would result in the removal of Dale Hunter from the position of head coach, and it would force George McPhee and Ted Leonsis to really reconsider where this team is headed, which they have not been forced to do over the last two off-seasons.
It was the “we’ll get them next time,” mentality. It shouldn’t be anymore. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Consider this: if the Capitals were to miss the postseason for the first time since 2006-2007, they would receive two picks in the top fourteen in the NHL Draft this summer. In a historically deep draft, the Capitals could use both of those high picks on young forwards that would cost little and could have an impact. It’s two chances to get lucky.
If they were to make the playoffs, however, they would only get one chance to get lucky in that top group of impact players. And let’s face it, even if this team does get in, the chances of them doing anything are very, very low. If another early round playoff loss came, I am willing to bet that the message around the franchise would be something along the lines of “if we got in without Backstrom, why can’t we do more with him?” Hunter would probably still be around, should he elect to come back. That’s the wrong attitude.
However, I am not naïve enough to sit here and write that the only thing that matters when evaluating a team’s ideals is hockey operations. If the team were to miss the playoffs, Mr. Leonsis would have to deal with an enraged fan base. Many season ticket holders that I have spoken to do not plan on renewing their plans for next season even now; that number would undoubtedly and understandably climb should Washington’s season end on April 8th. You have to look at the big picture. I understand the need to appease both interests.
That’s the reason I don’t think the Caps should have held a fire sale at the trading deadline. You have to be fair to your fans and the people who have paid good money to come and see your games. You shouldn’t tank.
But like I wrote after Sunday’s game, enough is enough. Tough decisions have to be made outside of the coaching sphere as well, with Mike Green (pointless in 12 games since his return), John Carlson (having a terrible sophomore season) as restricted free agents and Alex Semin, Dennis Wideman, and Tomas Vokoun highlighting a group of unrestricted free agents.
As a fan, it’s very tough for me to write this. I hate the thought of an April and maybe May without meaningful hockey games for my team. Of course I want them to make the playoffs. Part of me, however, thinks it would not be the worst thing ever.
The clock is ticking. 16 games to go.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Caps for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.