March 12 vs. Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: 106.7 The Fan and Caps Radio Network
Carolina Hurricanes (14-9-1)
Washington Capitals (10-13-1)
Two days after concluding the first half of their 2012-13 season’s slate with a disappointing 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers at Verizon Center, the Capitals embark upon the second half of that schedule with a crucial contest against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday in D.C. Tuesday’s game starts a home-and-home set between the two Southeast Division rivals; the Caps visit Raleigh for the first time this season on Thursday night.
“Very tough,” said Caps left wing Matt Hendricks after the Caps’ Sunday loss. “We had a chance to come back into our barn tonight and fix what happened [Saturday] night on the Island [5-2 loss], and we didn’t do that. We took penalties again, we got ourselves in trouble and we didn’t play a smart hockey game. Back-to-back games, you’ve got to play smart and we didn’t do that tonight.”
If they hold out hope of catching and overtaking Carolina for the Southeast Division title, the Caps almost certainly need to win each of these next two games against the Hurricanes in regulation. As it stands now, the Caps are one point out of 30th and last in the entire NHL. They trail Carolina by eight points for the Southeast lead and are seven points behind the Rangers for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth.
After starting the season with an anemic 2-8-1 mark, the Caps reeled off eight wins in their next 11 games. They then followed that stretch with a pair of painful losses this past weekend, a 5-2 setback to the Islanders in New York on Saturday and the 4-1 home ice defeat to the Rangers on Sunday.
Those two weekend losses leave Washington with just 21 points at the season’s midpoint, and they may have crippled the Caps’ 2013 postseason hopes. Assuming the Rangers – the league’s current eighth-place team – were to maintain their current pace and remain in eighth place, they’d finish with 56 points. That means Washington would have to have 57 points surpass the Rangers; New York has already defeated the Caps twice this season and the two teams play just once more.
For the Caps to get 36 points in the season’s second half, they’d need to forge a record along the lines of 18-6 over their last 24 games.
How many NHL teams managed 36 points in the first half of this season? Two, maybe three. Chicago and Anaheim did it out west. Boston could still pull it off; the Bruins have 35 points but have played only 22 games thus far.
Even if the Caps were to rediscover the pace that enabled them to win eight of 11 games and if they were to sustain that pace over the entirety of the second half, they’d finish with 56 points. Realistically, the best of the Caps’ dimming playoff hopes is to overtake Carolina for the Southeast title, a feat that could ultimately require a few points shy of 57 to pull off. Or not.
We’ll likely know in the next two weeks whether these Caps have any postseason hopes. After Tuesday’s home game against the Hurricanes, the Caps will play six of their next seven on the road, where they are just 3-7-1 this season. Each of the Caps’ three road wins has come against a Southeast Division opponent; the Caps are 0-6-1 on the road against the rest of the NHL.
Those next six road destinations for then Capitals are: Carolina, Boston, Pittsburgh, Winnipeg (twice), and New York (Rangers). Washington will need to find a way to win at least three or four of those games just to tread water in the playoff chase. By the time the Caps get back from that March 24 date against the Blueshirts on Broadway, we’ll likely know whether they’ll be fishing or cutting bait at the April 3 trade deadline.
Looking at Washington’s 13 regulation losses, the Caps have actually been responsible for beating themselves more often than not. Washington was tied or leading midway through eight of its 13 regulation losses. The Capitals surrendered multiple power-play goals in eight of their 13 regulation losses. In three of their losses, the Caps have held a lead going into the third period.
Most damning, the Caps have surrendered either the game-winning goal or the goal that put the opposition ahead for good as a direct result of penalties in as whopping 10 of their losses. Each of Washington’s first four regulation losses and each of its last six have come in that fashion.
In one of the three losses that didn’t come as a direct result of an opposition extra-man tally, the Caps took eight minor penalties in a span of just 31:38, squandering a 2-1 lead late. Clearly, the taxation of all that penalty-killing had an effect on that loss, too.
“Some of it stems from frustration,” says Hendricks of the Caps’ lack of discipline, “probably more than half. The other stems from being out of position, and those penalties happen. The frustration [penalties] are the ones that really hurt us.
“We just need to be smarter. We’ve talked about being patient as a team, playing the system, letting the system taking care of the wins and losses, being patient, wearing teams out, chipping pucks and not hoping all the time, hoping that this bounce is going to happen or hoping that this is going to happen. Just keep chipping pucks and playing a disciplined, patient hockey game. When we get away from that, it hurts us.”
Carolina was in town for the first meeting between these two teams on Feb. 26. Playing with a depleted defense, the Canes suffered a 3-0 loss to Washington in that one. Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward was excellent in that Carolina loss, keeping the contest respectable. Ward has since suffered a knee injury that will keep him on the sidelines for most of the rest of the 2012-13 season.
Aside from Ward, the Canes are much healthier now than they were for their previous visit to the District two weeks ago.
“You look at our personnel,” says Canes bench boss Kirk Muller, “it’s totally different than the group that went in there. No disrespect, but we had a really young group going in there. We’ve got more of our hockey club [Tuesday] going into Washington. And we expect different results.”
Carolina has been a shade better at home this season (7-5) than the Caps have (7-6). But the Hurricanes have been a much better road team than Washington. The Canes will bring a 7-4-1 road mark with them to the District.
“When you go on the road and just play hard and simplify your game, you can get results,” says Muller. “We’ve been finding ways to win on the road this year in all different ways. I think that’s been a big plus. But I think it’s our commitment to play a smart game and sticking with the system, everyone committed to it and the effort and battle level that we’ve been able to achieve going into [other] rinks.”
As the Canes vie for their first Southeast Division title since their Stanley Cup-winning campaign of 2005-06, they expect to feel some heat from their pursuers at some point.
“We’re in no position to take our foot off the pedal,” says Muller. “There are teams chasing us whether it’s in our division or even in the conference. We’ve got to be consistent. We’ve got to keep working on the details of what have been the strong parts of our game and work on the weaknesses. There is a lot of hockey to be played still, and everyone wants to catch us in our division, obviously. So we’ve got to bring our best hockey in the second half.”