by David Elfin

The Capitals reach the midway point of their season with tonight’s home game with Carolina. At 20-15-5, Washington is second in the Metropolitan Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference.

Compared to last season when they were 10-13-1 at the lockout-shortened midway point, the Caps are in much better shape. However, it’s worrisome that Washington is scoring less (sixth in the NHL, compared to third last year) and giving up more goals (tied for 21st, compared to 17th) than it did on average for all of 2012-13.

Coach Adam Oates’ first full season has been predictable in that three-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin has 30 of Washington’s 114 goals (not counting they’re eight that decided shootouts). No one else in the league is close to accounting for such a large share of his team’s offense as Ovechkin’s 26.3 percent.

That makes the 28-year-old right wing a top candidate to win a fourth MVP award, but it also means that the Caps are living very dangerously. If Ovechkin were sidelined, they would be hard-pressed to score. Right wing Joel Ward (12) and centers Mikhail Grabovski (11) and Nicklas Backstrom (10) are Washington’s only other players in double figures. What’s more, Backstrom and Ward have already topped their outputs from last season when each found the back of the net just eight times as is also true for Grabovski, who scored nine times for Toronto.

Ovechkin’s dominance of Washington’s offense has been true to a large degree for all nine of his seasons. However, the situation at the other end of the ice has been a big surprise. The Caps came into the season sure that 24-year-old Braden Holtby, a playoff star as a rookie in 2011-12 with a 1.95 goals-against average and their clear No. 1 goalie last year, has been beaten out for that role by 22-year-old rookie Philipp Grubauer, who began the campaign in the minors.

While Holtby played in just five of Washington’s 13 games last month, he hasn’t won a full contest since Dec. 7 and sports a 3.00 GAA. In contrast, Grubauer has a 2.02 GAA in 10 games — eight starts — since being recalled from Hershey on Nov. 30.

But maybe the switch from Holtby to Grubauer shouldn’t be a shock. After all, while the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and Buffalo’s Ryan Miller have been manning their team’s nets since the fall of 2005, the Caps have transitioned during those nine seasons from long-time mainstay Olie Kolzig (now their goalie coach) to Cristobal Huet to Jose Theodore to Michal Neuvirth (who now’s third-string and wants to be traded) to Tomas Vokoun to Holtby to Grubauer. That’s seven No. 1 goalies in less than a decade without even counting Semyon Varlamov, who filled that role during the 2009 and 2010 playoffs.

A perennial leading the offense and a newcomer in charge of the defense is now old hat for Washington no matter whether Oates, Dale Hunter or Bruce Boudreau has been behind the bench.

What has to be a bigger concern is the Caps’ reliance on the crapshoots that are shootouts. Washington has gone beyond overtime a league-high 12 times and won eight of those games. Take away their shootout record and the Caps would be just 12-15-1, which would rank seventh in the division and 13th in the conference. They would be 10 points out of the final playoff spot and in serious danger of missing postseason for the first time since 2007 when Ovechkin was in his second season, Backstrom was a rookie and Grubauer was a 15-year-old beginning his junior career in his native Rosenheim, Germany.

All anyone needs to know about shootouts being crapshoots is that Ovechkin, the dominant goal-scorer of his era, struggles to put pucks past opposing goalies in those skills competition-like situations while former Caps enforcer Matt Hendricks (29 goals in 299 career games) and right wing Eric Fehr (63 in 337) thrive in them.

So as Oates and Co. head into the second half of the season – which will be shut down from Feb. 9-26 for the Olympics – they can’t forget that they: are just three points away from being out of a playoff spot; are too reliant on Ovechkin (15-7 when he scores 5-13, including shootout defeats, when he doesn’t) and on their second-ranked power play (37 of their 114 goals); and have an unsettled goalie situation.

On the other hand, after Saturday’s visit to Minnesota, Washington will have played nine of its road games against the powerful Western Conference with the other five coming during the final 13 contests. The powerful Penguins are the only team in their division that’s better than a game over .500 in regulation and at least three Metropolitan franchises have to make the playoffs in the NHL’s new setup.

Most important, the Caps are a solid 47-33-8 under Oates. That .580 winning percentage is higher than those of such respected predecessors as Bryan Murray, Terry Murray, Jim Schoenfeld, Ron Wilson and Hunter. Only Boudreau was more successful in Washington.

If the Caps maintain their winning ways under Oates the rest of the season, they’ll make the playoffs. That’s when matchups, a hot goalie and luck can make all the difference. It’s hard to see them advancing come April even in the weaker East, but who saw them ousting reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston behind Holtby in the spring of 2012?


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.


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