WASHINGTON — Here we go again.
The NHL All-Star break hits this weekend and the Capitals have the best record in the league. That’s great. It just hasn’t led to playoff glory in the past. Maybe this is finally the year? Washington (33-10-6, 72 points) is four points ahead of Metropolitan Division rival Columbus for first place and seven points clear of Montreal for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Caps are again having one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. The 2009-10 team won the Presidents’ Trophy with 121 points. Last year’s team won it with 120. This year’s squad is on pace to match 120 again with 72 points through 49 games (.734 points percentage).
Fans, of course, are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Regular-season success hasn’t meant a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue yet. So let’s go negative now and get it out of the way. Here are the five biggest potholes that could derail a Stanley Cup bid.
The NHL decided “rivalries” mattered more than fairness in the postseason. Well – this is what you get: Four of the top five teams in the league play in the Metropolitan Division. The Caps, Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers all have goal differentials of +31 or better. The Minnesota Wild are at +51, but play in the Western Conference. Add in the Montreal Canadiens (+25) and six of the top eight NHL teams are in the Eastern Conference. They’ll all have to play each other in a murderers’ row first round that could wipe out four legitimate Cup contenders before we even reach May.
If the Caps slip only a little they could play the defending champion Penguins in the first round. That’s not fair to either team. Fans scoff at it, but winning the Presidents’ Trophy actually matters this year. And if Montreal finishes with the best record in the conference, Washington could face the Rangers in the first round even if it wins the Metro. New York has the NHL’s fifth-best point differential (+38) and a world-class goalie in Henrik Lundqvist.
For all the talent on this team, the depth isn’t there. Even losing one key defenseman – as they have recently with John Carlson – changes the equation. A player like Brooks Orpik could step in for a game or two in a top-four pairing in a playoff series. But an injury that keeps any of Carlson, Matt Niskanen or Karl Alzner out for weeks at a time could spell trouble. Is playing Taylor Chorney a legitimate option in a second or third-round series? Teams at that level relentlessly expose the 6/7/8 defensemen forced into heavier minutes. And while Washington’s lines are humming along even with Alex Ovechkin slipping under a 40-goal pace, it’s unclear if any of the top scoring options at Hershey (Jakub Vrana, Travis Boyd, Chris Bourque, Paul Carey, Christian Thomas, Zach Sanford) could contribute adequately if a key Caps forward gets hurt. There are no elite rookies waiting in the wings to make a playoff splash.
Wait…what? This has been the Caps’ bread and butter for years. But this group hasn’t quite clicked like it has in the past. Washington sits 13th in the NHL at 20.7 percent. That’s not bad at all, but when goals dry up in the playoffs you need to take advantage of every opportunity your opponent gives you. Struggling to maintain puck possession at even strength on the road in a key postseason game? Fine. Bang home a power-play goal and change all that. It’s not an Achilles’ heel, but it’s just not the strength it once was despite having so many talented players. Washington can’t afford to go cold here in the spring.
Rail about the referees all you want, season-long data tells the story about how many penalties a team takes and how many it draws. And the Caps don’t fare all that well here. Yes, the penalty kill is phenomenal at 85.1 percent. That’s fourth in the NHL. Wonderful. But they put too much pressure on that group, too. Washington has been whistled for 451 penalty minutes and drawn just 436. That difference ranks 21st in the league and could get the Caps in trouble in the playoffs, especially against the better power plays. The PK can excel for a series or two under duress. But for four rounds? Eventually they will crack if that stat keeps up in the postseason.
Addressing any depth issues at forward or on the blueline will be hard for GM Brian MacLellan. There are teams in worse shape – Pittsburgh, Montreal, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose – but the Caps have around $953,000 to work with as the NHL’s Feb. 28 trade deadline approaches, according to the web site CapFriendly.com. That is ninth-fewest in the league and means the quality of player they can add is lower. Metro rivals Columbus and the New York Rangers have over $2 million to work with. A key injury between now and then would leave a hole difficult to patch. So expect MacLellan to get creative and seek out bargain-basement veterans to help. Even the league’s top team needs a little boost come playoff time. And who knows? Maybe none of these issues come back to bite the Caps and this really IS the year.
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