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Capitals Crashing Before Olympic Break

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Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Washington Capitals makes a save on Thomas Vanek #26 of the New York Islanders during the second period at the Verizon Center on February 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Washington Capitals makes a save on Thomas Vanek #26 of the New York Islanders during the second period at the Verizon Center on February 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Just when you thought the struggling Capitals couldn’t sink any lower, they managed to top (?) themselves with last night’s 1-0 loss to the visiting New York Islanders.

The long-downtrodden Islanders came to Verizon Center with the NHL’s fifth-fewest points and having allowed more goals than any team except Edmonton, but Washington couldn’t put a single puck in the net.

After Washington was outshot 28-22 and its once-dominant power play failed on all six opportunities, ex-Cap Alan May, now a Comcast analyst, tweeted, “Most painful Caps home game to watch this season. Poor decisions awful execution and bumped off puck every shift.”

Coach Adam Oates said that his reeling team might have been tired in its third game in four days. Eric Fehr blamed an ongoing tendency to take penalties while fellow forward Martin Erat said the Caps were flat.

Instead of leapfrogging Carolina and New Jersey in the Eastern Conference standings and moving within a point of a tie for the final playoff spot, the Caps remained in 13th place, leading only the Islanders, Florida and Buffalo with just 25 games remaining. Visits by Western Conference laggard Winnipeg tomorrow and the Devils on Saturday are Washington’s last contests before the 18-day Olympic break.

All but two of Washington’s first 15 post-break games are against teams that are currently playoff-bound. So the Caps might be just about of hope by the time they play five of their final eight against teams, like them, that are seemingly headed for the golf course come mid-April.

If that happens, it would a first for the franchise since 2007, Alex Ovechkin’s second season. That was before the superstar winger had turned 22 or won the first of his three Hart (MVP) Trophies. Long-time sidekick Nicklas Backstrom was still playing back home in Sweden.

Throughout the six-year playoff run led by Ovechkin and Backstrom, Washington has relied on its offense. Even in the 2011-12 season when the defensive-minded Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau behind the bench, the Caps were 15th in goals and 18th in goals allowed.

So the fact that Oates’ team is tied for 24th with a 2.91 goals-against average isn’t surprising. What’s out of whack is that Washington is just 14th in scoring with 2.74 goals per game, and falling.

After last night’s loss, their seventh straight against a Metropolitan Division rival dating to Dec. 27, the Caps are 3-7-3 in their last 13 games. They scored an impressive 16 goals in the three victories but managed a pathetic 13 goals in the 10 defeats (including three in overtime or shootouts).

How can a team led by the top goal scorer of his generation and coached by a Hall of Fame center average 1.3 goals over 10 games?

While Erat, who wanted out of Washington in December and has yet to score in 49 games, is an easy target, the Caps’ offensive problems run much deeper.

Other than Ovechkin (39 goals) and the sweet-passing Backstrom (11), only four Washington forwards have reached double-digits 70 percent of the way through the season. The others are Joel Ward (17), Jason Chimera and Mikhail Grabovski (12 each) and Troy Brouwer (11). All but Brouwer are in their 30s and all were acquired from other teams.

Where are the homegrown forwards who can put the puck in the net? Of the 12 current Caps who were drafted by general manager George McPhee, two are goalies and five are defensemen. That leaves five forwards: Ovechkin (first round, 2004); Backstrom (first round, 2006), Fehr (first round, 2003); Marcus Johansson (first round, 2009) and Tom Wilson (first round, 2012). The latter trio has combined for all of 17 goals: nine by Fehr, seven by Johansson and one by Wilson.

Not only has McPhee only picked just two forwards beyond the first round of the last 13 drafts who have made any NHL impact (2006 seventh-rounder Mathieu Perreault, now with Anaheim, and 2009 third-rounder Cody Eakin, now with Dallas), but Ovechkin, Backstrom and Alexander Semin (first round, 2002, now with Carolina) are the GM’s first-rounders who can score.

In 354 games dating back to December 2005, the 27-year-old Fehr has 66 goals, or one every 5.4 games. In 240 games over the last four seasons, the 23-year Johansson has 40 goals, or one every six games. It’s too soon to judge rookie fourth-liner Wilson, but as far as Fehr and probably Johansson, they are who they are and that’s not good.

Pittsburgh, which ended Ovechkin and Co.’s initial postseason in 2008, has kept soaring over the last couple of seasons despite major injuries to elite scorers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The same is true for Tampa Bay, the Caps’ 2010 playoff conqueror, which hasn’t fallen apart despite losing 2012 goal-scoring champion Steven Stamkos to a broken leg on Nov. 11.

Montreal, which stunned Washington in the 2009 playoffs, wins with defense but still has six forwards – four of them homegrown — with at least 10 goals. The New York Rangers, who closed out the Caps the past two springs, has eight forwards with at least 10 goals. Only three of those players were acquired from other teams.

It’s wonderful that Ovechkin’s 39 goals are nine ahead of everyone else in the NHL, but it’s woeful that Washington’s next-leading homegrown goal-scorer is defenseman John Carlson with 10.

If McPhee’s 17-year tenure ends this spring because the Caps miss the playoffs, it will also be because he never managed to draft a player who could take some of the goal-scoring burden off the Great Eight.

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 four Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin

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