It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the Caps. Not after four straight Southeast Division crowns by an average margin of 14 points and a 7-0 start to this season.

Winning the division was supposed to be child’s play for Washington despite last spring’s playoff sweep by Southeast rival Tampa Bay. The question, as always, is would the Caps finally get over the postseason hump for the first time since their lone trip to the Stanley Cup finals back in 1998?

Instead, the road games at Southeast-leading Florida, the Lightning and division foe Carolina over the next five days could determine Washington’s fate for 2011-12. The Caps are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, trailing Toronto by three points (but with two games in hand) and the Panthers by four points in the Southeast. So Washington is on the outside looking in at a playoff berth for the first time since 2007 with the season ending just seven weeks from Saturday.

Sure, the Caps will still have 23 games after this intense division span, but only six of those will be in the Southeast. And the boys in red, white and blue will only play three more times after the Florida-Tampa Bay-Carolina sojourn before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

Maybe All-Star defenseman Mike Green, who practiced yesterday for the first time since having abdominal surgery four weeks earlier, could actually return to the lineup for these crucial games.

The Caps are 9-1 with Green on the ice this year, 19-23-5 without him.

It’s less likely that Washington will welcome star center Nicklas Backstrom any time soon from the concussion that he suffered on Jan. 3 when elbowed in the head by Calgary’s Rene Bourque.

Sure the Caps have missed Green and Backstrom, but the archrival Pittsburgh Penguins have had Sidney Crosby for just eight games this season and were also without fellow elite centers Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal for a combined 27 games but still have a solid hold on an Eastern Conference playoff berth.

The team that Washington general manager George McPhee so carefully assembled after last May’s shocking exit against Tampa Bay, adding veteran character forwards Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward, rugged defenseman Roman Hamrlik and ace goalie Tomas Vokoun, simply hasn’t produced as expected.
After their latest loss, on home ice to Western powerhouse San Jose, alternate captain Mike Knuble, the team’s 39-year-old elder statesman, and Michal Neuvirth, last season’s No. 1 goalie, both complained about not being in the lineup.

In truth, Knuble seems to be done and Neuvirth hasn’t reacted well to Vokoun’s arrival. Defenseman Dennis Wideman, a surprising All-Star Game selection, is about the only Cap who’s having a better season than expected with two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin the biggest underachiever.
After averaging 107.5 points the past four seasons, the Caps are on course to finish with 86 or 87 this year. If they don’t come alive soon, whether through McPhee’s moves at the trade deadline, the return of Green and perhaps Backstrom, or their own resolve, the next seven weeks could very well be the end for Washington hockey as we’ve come to know it for the last five years.

If there’s any reason for optimism, look to coach Dale Hunter’s history in Washington. Hunter was a key figure on a Caps team that was left for dead after coach Bryan Murray was fired in January 1990 but wound up squeaking into the playoffs en route to the franchise’s first Eastern Conference finals four months later. Hunter was still on hand in 1998 when top seeds Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Philadelphia were all upset in the opening round, leaving the door wide-open for the fourth-seeded Caps to skate all the way to their first Stanley Cup finals.

Maybe magic will strike again, but Ovechkin and Co. better not count on that nor on motivation from Hunter, the return of Green and Backstrom or McPhee’s deals. It’s up to the Caps’ veterans to save the season. Or else.

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 since March.

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