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Disappointing Capitals continue to sputter towards finish line

Let’s say this up front, the Washington Capitals have missed the playoffs just once in the last 15 seasons. They’ve been remarkably consistent in a town where heartbreak and despair typically rule the local sports landscape.

Sadly, the Caps will miss the postseason for the first time since 2014, and many of the names and faces that fans have grown accustomed to over the last several years might be elsewhere when the puck drops next season. 

Washington’s general manager Brian MacLellan has some difficult decision to make — first and foremost, whether or not to re-sign coach Peter Laviolette. Once he figures out who will be behind the bench, MacLellan can turn his attention to which players have earned the chance to stick around for the last few seasons of Alex Ovechkin’s illustrious career. Players like Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and John Carlson will almost assuredly return next season, but many others currently on the roster are on far less-stable footing. 

That’s why the last two weeks of this disappointing season remain so vital … and so infuriating. Each loss might help the Capitals secure a better draft pick, but it also exposes more potential problems with the roster as presented constructed. With an offense that struggles to score consistently and a defense that’s seemingly incapable of allowing less than four or five goals per game, despite a strong statistical season by Darcy Kuemper in net, it’s looking more and more like radical changes are needed to return to the postseason.

All of these flaws were on display for a disappointing 5-2 loss at the hands of the New York Rangers. Washington fell behind early and never really threatened to make it much of a contest as they dropped a fourth-consecutive game. More Capitals players fought (three) than scored (two) during this matinee matchup, which sums up an otherwise forgettable afternoon perfectly.


Caps’ playoff hopes dealt devastating blow in loss to Blues

With Jordan Binnington suspended two games for acting like a crazy person, the St. Louis Blues turned to 22-year-old goalie Joel Hofer. The emergency call-up responded by stopping 32 of 34 shots in his season debut and dealt the Washington Capitals a demoralizing 5-2 loss on St. Patrick’s Day.

While Hofer was clearing seizing the moment on one end of the ice, the Capitals too often hung their veteran netminder, Darcy Kuemper, out to dry on the opposite side of the rink. Washington allowed a goal on the first shot attempt allowed, less than two minutes into the contest and never recovered. Amazingly, the Caps have now allowed a goal on the first shot they’ve faced in three-straight games.

The team’s struggles aren’t just about starting slowly, however. Thanks to a bevy of missed assignments, defensive miscues and breakaways allowed, St. Louis jumped out to a 4-0 lead before the second period concluded, all but killing any lingering hopes of sneaking into the postseason. Defenseman Rasmus Sandin, who has looked great offensively and has provided a spark on the power play since joining the Capitals at the trade deadline, was on the ice for four Blues goals on the night.

Third-period goals from defenseman Martin Fehervary and center Nicklas Backstrom made the final score line look closer than the game actually was, and the Caps now finds themselves in a situation where they need to essentially win their final 12 games of the regular season to have any real chance to qualify for the playoffs.

That sobering reality killed the buzz in what should have been a festive atmosphere at Capital One Arena. Even the most optimistic fans are going to have trouble keeping the faith after this loss.


Devils deliver baptism by fire to new-look Capitals

In a refreshing moment of honesty and self-reflection rarely seen in professional sports, the Washington Capitals shipped away five key veterans from an over-the-hill and underperforming lineup in an attempt to restock and retool on the fly.

After weeks of speculation over whether the Capitals fancied themselves buyers or sellers as the regular season winds down, general manager Brian MacLellan made the difficult decision to part with a number of good guys and fan favorites as Washington was one of the league’s busiest teams at the trade deadline.

The Capitals moved on from defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Erik Gustafsson, as well as forwards Garnet Hathaway, Marcus Johansson and Lars Eller, which essentially killed any of the admittedly diminished hopes of sneaking into the postseason as a wild-card team. Now, the front office will spend the rest of the season evaluating what the roster has, and just as importantly, what the roster lacks.

While MacLellan has his eyes on the future, Washington still has weeks of games remaining on the schedule. Capitals coach Peter Laviolette’s task down the stretch is to keep the locker room focused and motivated. Included in that mix are defenseman 23-year-old Rasmus Sandin, acquired from Toronto, and 33-year-old forward Craig Smith, acquired from Boston. A trio of young blue-liners — Vincent Iorio, Gabriel Carlsson, Alexander Alexeyev — have also been thrust into action thanks to trades and injuries. 

With so many changes, it’s probably a good thing that everyone wears their names on their sweaters. Getting to know a half dozen new teammates and developing chemistry with new linemates won’t happen over night, but that’s okay. Might as well throw all of the kids into live action and see if they’re able to sink or swim. On this night, the Caps lost to the New Jersey Devils via shootout, 3-2. But the hope is that a few of these fresh, new faces will ultimately usher in another era of respectability.


Caps continue to stumble at worst-possible time

With their season on the line and playoffs hopes rapidly fading, the Washington Capitals have gone cold at the worst-possible time. After no-showing the outdoor game, the Capitals returned home and showed many of the troubling signs that have plagued the franchise since the all-star break. 

For the fifth-consecutive game, Washington allowed the first goal and spent the rest of the evening in an uphill battle. And for the fifth-straight game, they were unable to overcome that early deficit and lost in regulation. With the trade deadline just days away, it’s difficult to see the team’s front office realistically viewing the Capitals, in present form, as capable of qualifying for the postseason — let alone being competitive in a seven-game series with the league’s elite.

If that’s the case, then general manager Brian MacLellan could find himself as a seller at the trade deadline for the first time, which could result in many aging veterans, underperforming players and/or pending free agents being shown the door. That could pave the way to center Lars Eller, ring wing Anthony Mantha and any defenseman not named John Carlson leaving town in the next few days, which would radically alter the Caps as presently constructed.

While potentially losing key contributors to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup winning season would be difficult for many, losing five-straight must-win games should open the door to some serious soul searching. And if/when MacLellan reaches the conclusion that this current group of players is no longer good enough to get the job done, he owes it to everyone involved to make the necessary changes.


No Ovechkin, no defense, no chance of victory versus Panthers

In their final tune-up before a highly-anticipated outdoor matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Washington Capitals allowed six different skaters to score in a disappointing 6-3 loss to the Florida Panthers. 

While many individuals in and out of the organization might have been focused on the upcoming spectacle of playing in an outdoor venue for the fourth time in franchise history, the Panthers represented a much more immediate threat — especially with both teams neck-and-neck in the standings as they battle for a spot in the playoffs.

With the win, Florida pulled even with Washington at 62 points, erasing an 11-point deficit since New Year’s Day. While that speaks volumes for the Panthers, it also highlights a worrying trend for the Caps, who continue to struggle with consistency in 2023.

Left wing Alex Ovechkin missed the game after flying home to be with his family as they deal with the passing of his father, Mikhail. In his absence, the Capitals received goals from centers Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dylan Strome.


In heavyweight bout, Capitals drop Penguins

Two cities. Two franchises. Two captains who are among the best to ever play the game. Add it all up and you get plenty of respect but very little love for one another when the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins square off.

And sure, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are closer to the end of their careers than they are the beginning, but that only heightens the drama whenever this game pops up on the schedule. This particular matchup found the Caps and Pens both deadlocked for points as the Metropolitan foes currently hold down both wild card spots in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

With roughly 30 games left in the regular season every single point matters and these two iconic franchises showed a sense of urgency from the moment the puck dropped at Capital One Arena. There were goals. There were timely saves. There were massive hits and gloves were even dropped. But the one thing the game lacked after regular and again after overtime was a winner. So a shootout was required and, thanks to centers Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington emerged victorious on this night.

On offense, Alex Ovechkin scored his 32nd goal of the season and Marcus Johansson chipped in his 13th tally of the season while Darcy Kuemper stopped 35 shots en route to the 3-2 win. The Capitals now hit the road for two games before taking some much needed time off during the all-star break.


Traffic stymies Washington in Wild affair

The Minnesota Wild are content to zig when many other franchises are zagging. As many teams try load up on smaller, faster skaters during a season that has featured an unexpected, but welcome offensive explosion, the Wild are content to stockpile a roster full of size and bulk.

Minnesota has no interest in engaging in your foot race. They’re lining up massive trees specifically designed to send your sports car crashing into the boards. By willfully slowing down the pace of games and bringing the physicality every night, the Wild are attempting to engage in playoff hockey for an entire season. There are worse ways to take to the ice, even if it might not make for the most aesthetic encounters.

The Washington Capitals have a ways to go before they can focus on the postseason. For now, they’re much more focused on getting their core players back into the rotation after an absurd amount of games lost to injury during the first half of the regular season.

With their focus inward, the Capitals failed to recognize and/or counter the Wild’s straightforward tactic of placing a large gentleman in front of the opposing goalie, thereby limiting his ability to read and react to incoming shots. Minnesota scored three goals in this manner and headed home with a 4-2 win, leaving the Capitals to contemplate how they were done in by traffic in a town that has ample experience with the topic.

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