Capitals

Elfin: Maddening Season Has Caps In Playoff Battle

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

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After last spring’s pathetic sweep by the underdog Tampa Bay Lightning, I wrote that the Caps should forget about the regular season and just focus on becoming a much better playoff team.

It seems that the guys in red, white and blue took me too literally because as they prepare for the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins tonight in the final pre-All Star Game-break at Verizon Center, the Caps are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. Finishing there would mean that Washington would miss postseason for the first time since 2007 and wouldn’t even get the chance to see if general manager George McPhee’s more veteran-laden roster could produce when it really counts.

It has been an eventful three-plus months for Washington: 2008 Coach Bruce Boudreau was fired on Nov. 27 and replaced by former Caps standout Dale Hunter; two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin is on pace for easily his least effective season with just 20 goals and 19 assists; All-Star defenseman Mike Green has skated in just 10 of 47 games and is due to miss maybe another month as he recovers from abdominal surgery; and top scorer Nicklas Backstrom has been sidelined since Jan. 3 with a concussion.

A popular theory in the Washington dressing room for the formerly dominant regular season team’s struggles is that the Caps play to the level of their competition.

“I think we play better against teams above us in the standings,” said defenseman Dennis Wideman, a rare bright spot who’ll skate in his first All-Star Game on Sunday. “We have to find a way to be consistent playing teams that are below us. If you don’t match their work ethic, you’re not going to win.”

Wideman was thinking back to last week’s embarrassing shutouts at the hands of Carolina and the New York Islanders, but in truth, Washington is 12-11-3 against teams with at least as many points, 13-8 against teams with fewer. And since Hunter took over, the Caps are 6-7-2 against the better teams, 7-3 against the lesser lights.

Elder statesman Mike Knuble, 39, had a better read on what’s wrong with Washington.

“Good teams play well eight out of 10 times or nine out of times,” Knuble said. “We’re playing well just five or six times.”

Right wing Troy Brouwer, who won the Cup with Chicago in 2010, agreed that Washington’s inconsistency has been frustrating.

And yet, if the Caps – who’ll be without both the suspended Ovechkin and the ailing Backstrom tonight for the first time in almost six years — can play as well against the powerful Bruins as they did in the second and third periods last time out at archrival Pittsburgh, they could head into their extended break on a high note and in first place in the Southeast Division (if Florida cooperates by losing at home to Philadelphia).

“When you have five days off and you finish with a win, you’re a little bit happier … and you’re a little bit more  excited to come back,” said Brouwer, one of McPhee’s June veteran imports along with forwards Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward and goalie Tomas Vokoun. “It’s real important (to win), especially where we are in the standings.”

Starting tonight, 20 of the Caps’ final 35 games are against teams at least even with them in the standings. While upsetting the Eastern Conference co-leading Bruins would be wonderful, the games that Washington really has to focus on are against Florida and Winnipeg, the other teams that have a realistic shot at winning the division, especially given the fact that only one Southeast squad might qualify for postseason.

Three of the first five games after the break are against the Panthers and the Jets. Pulling off that trifecta from Feb. 1-9 would suddenly make Washington’s so-far maddening season a lot more enjoyable.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist

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