Reporting David Elfin
The crazily inconsistent Caps are having the most stomach-churning season of any of the major local pro teams. Every time it seems they’re headed to a sixth straight postseason appearance, they falter. Every time it looks like “it’s wait until next year,” they win.
The Nats were dominant from the start in winning the 2012 National League East title whose successful defense they began on Monday. The Redskins started 3-6 before reeling off seven straight victories to capture their first NFC East championship since 1999. The Wizards, 5-28 without John Wall, are 23-18 since their catalyst returned from a knee injury after beating the Chicago Bulls last night at Verizon Center.
And then there are the Caps. Here’s a synopsis of their lockout-shortened 17-17-2 season with 12 games remaining: 0-3-1, 2-2, 0-3, 3-0, 0-2, 2-0, 4-5, 4-1, 2-1-1. Talk about unpredictable. Don’t think that home ice makes much a difference either since they’re 8-8 at Verizon Center, 9-9-2 away from F Street.
Speaking of home ice, it was just eight nights ago that the New York Islanders seemingly blunted all the momentum the Caps had gained from winning back-to-back nights at Southeast Division leader Winnipeg and again two nights later at the New York Rangers, their 2012 playoff conqueror. Washington overcame a 2-0 deficit to tie the visiting Islanders only to lose 3-2 on a late mistake by Brooks Laich. With a three-game road trip ahead, the Caps seemed in serious trouble in the battle for the last couple Eastern Conference playoff spots.
So naturally, Washington won 4-3 in a shootout at Buffalo, and after blowing a late two-goal lead to lose 5-4 in overtime at Philadelphia, rallied to win 5-3 last night at Carolina after trailing 2-0 early.
The surging Islanders also won last night, extending their tear to 5-1 and giving them the East’s eighth and final postseason berth before the ninth-place Rangers’ game with front-running Pittsburgh tonight.
The Penguins, Montreal, Boston, Toronto and Ottawa have just about locked down five of the eight playoff spots. New Jersey (39 points in 36 games), the Islanders (39 in 27), Rangers (37 in 35), Jets (38 in 38) and Caps (36 in 36) are the true contenders for the remaining three berths.
So tomorrow’s visit from the Islanders is the biggest game between the teams since the New Yorkers stunned the Caps in the 1993 playoffs, their fifth postseason series matchup in 11 years. They haven’t met since in the chase for the Cup largely because the Islanders reached the playoffs just five times in the intervening 18 seasons — only once (in 2007) since the 2004-05 season was canceled by a lockout — and haven’t been on the winning end of the traditional post-series handshakes since May 1993 when Washington captain Alex Ovechkin was just a 7-year-old in Moscow with NHL dreams.
However, Ovi and Co. haven’t played this year like the team that won four straight Southeast titles before finishing second to Florida in 2012. What’s more, they’re 0-2 against the Islanders, getting pounded 5-2 on March 9 at Nassau Coliseum before the home defeat 17 days later that was Washington’s only regulation loss in its past seven games.
Better news for the Caps is that four of their next five games after tomorrow’s date with the Islanders are against their Southeast rivals, the Panthers, Lightning (two) and Hurricanes. Washington has a sterling 10-3 division record, 10-1 since opening the season with losses to Tampa Bay and Winnipeg.
With Carolina collapsing (1-8-1 in its last 10 games), either Winnipeg or Washington should win the Southeast and be the third seed in the East. The Jets were just 3-7 in their past 10 games compared to the Caps’ 6-3-1 mark which should tip the balance in Washington’s favor, but as inconsistent as rookie coach Adam Oates’ crew has been, counting on that recent success to continue would be foolish.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin