Don’t Panic. These are the first two words in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and they should be the first two words that come to mind about this season’s Washington Capitals. The Caps haven’t been performing as well as anyone expected after the reeling off 7 straight wins to start the season. Injuries have certainly played a large part in that, with the long-term ailments of #1 center Nicklas Backstrom and #1 defenseman Mike Green being the most painful. Another big factor was the exchange of cheap, home-grown talent who had played together for years in favor of older, more expensive veteran free agents and trade acquisitions, which has affected the chemistry in the locker room. Of course, the biggest hiccup was the mid-season coaching change that brought in first-time NHL Head Coach Dale Hunter and immediately put him under the microscope. While it was necessary both for the team to move on and for the Bruce Boudreau to re-discover himself, coaching changes and system changes still take time to adjust to. None of these factors make for an ideal regular season, but none of them are cause for panic, either.
The bad news is the Caps would not be in the playoffs if they started today. The Hockey News picked the Caps to win the Stanley Cup this season, but they have only won 3 of their last 11 games. The coach has made decisions about scratching players or dressing players that seem puzzling on the surface. These moves, combined with the losing, have cerated quite a bit of tension around the team, tension that erupted in the form of two players speaking to the press about their unhappiness, the associate goaltending coach criticizing the team captain, and said team captain getting into a scuffle with a teammate in practice. After these kinds of issues, it would be easy for fans to panic and start throwing in the towel, but that would do no good. If Capitals’ General Manager George McPhee is anything, he’s a frood who really knows where his towel is, that is to say, a guy who’s really amazingly together. He has a plan heading into the trade deadline over the next 10 days, and that plan is for the Capitals to not only make the playoffs, but advance deep into spring.
Losing Nicklas Backstrom to injury has certainly cost the team several games over the past 6 weeks, but the flip side of his injury is the startling clarity of the Capitals’ need another center. The Capitals have been singularly unable to control play in the opponents’ end since Backstrom was injured, leading to inconsistent offense and a paltry power play. Considering the role of #1 and #2 centers is to control the play, this is not surprising. If George McPhee can get a center who can fill in for Backstrom now and slide down the to second line once he returns, the glaring hole in the Caps line-up will be filled, and some measure of puck possession and offense should return.
The last time the Capitals were sitting in this position, it was 2008 and Michael Nylander was out for the season with a shoulder injury. At the trade deadline, McPhee went out and acquired Sergei Fedorov to anchor the second line. It was an excellent trade, as the Caps only gave up a prospect who has still yet to play an NHL game. Fedorov, meanwhile, scored the game-winning goal to send the Caps to the playoffs as the division champion. He also scored the series-winning goal to send the Caps to the second round in 2009. McPhee also acquired veteran center Jason Arnott last season, and he was instrumental in the Capitals advancing to the second round, as well. Going back to 1998, McPhee made his only trade for a Finn, and veteran center Esa Tikkanen played a key checking role for the Caps as they marched to the Stanley Cup Final. He’s got a move like that up his sleeve this season, too, and he’s willing to trade a warm body to do it, whether or not Backstrom comes back.
The good news for the Capitals is they realistically only need to leapfrog the 8th place Toronto Maple Leafs or the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers to make the playoffs. With 26 games to go, the Caps are 3 points behind the Leafs with 2 games in hand and 2 more head-to-head match-ups to go. They are also only 4 points behind the Panthers with two more head-to-head match-ups to go, including tonight and the penultimate game of the regular season. Considering the Panthers injury problems are getting worse with 3 puck-moving defensemen and 2 forwards on injured reserve, their hold on the division lead could crumble rather quickly once the Caps shore up their glaring issues. Meanwhile the Capitals’ injury problems are getting better, with Mike Green set to return next week and no other injuries to report. Green, of course, is the Caps’ best skating and puck-handling defenseman. Considering the other major pain point for the Caps was the inability to get out of their own zone, their overall prognosis is improving.
Even with the abundance of what seem like under-performing and overpaid spare parts on the roster, there is reason for hope. Dale Hunter’s record this season isn’t exactly impressive, but then again, he hasn’t had all four young guns in the line-up together yet this season. Even in the absence of Backstrom or a big trade, the Capitals will still make the playoffs this season. If Backstrom returns and McPhee adds a veteran center, the Capitals could be legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup. The other flip side of the injuries and all this losing is that is has given younger players a chance to step up and the team will have faced real adversity during the season, forcing them to learn how to adapt and work together before the playoffs begin. Besides, if they’re all busy hating the coach, they won’t have time to point fingers at each other.
We know it will be a rough 10 days until the trading deadline and that every game without Nicklas Backstrom seems more like 3 or 4, but the Capitals are perfectly capable of getting themselves out of trouble. Just remember: keep calm and don’t panic.