The Caps aren’t just on the verge of missing the playoffs, after thinking they might go to the Stanley Cup finals. After three straight loses at home, and with their best player, Nicklas Backstrom, almost certainly out for the season, they are in danger of imploding. Their meeting on Thursday night at Verizon Center with Tampa Bay has suddenly become vital. After that, the Caps play six of their next seven games on the road, where they’ve been horrid. In two weeks, if they don’t shape up in a hurry, they could be DOA.
Bad things happen to teams when they fall apart. People panic or judge too harshly. Hope flips too quickly into anger. Players get traded, free agents aren’t re-signed, coaches don’t return or general managers are in jeopardy.
That’s how windows of opportunity get smashed unnecessarily; that’s how rosters, which took many years to construct, get blown up before their time. The Caps don’t need to fire Coach Dale Hunter, even though he often seems lost since he replaced fired Bruce Boudreau, who’s flourishing in Anaheim. They don’t need to can General Manager George McPhee, who’s had his worst year but still has plenty of young talent set to arrive next season. Aside from Alexander Semin, who’s a free agent and should be allowed to leave — for anywhere — the Caps don’t need to detonate their locker room.
But the Caps, and especially Alex Ovechkin, who this season might not rank among the NHL’s top 40 players, sure need to finish the year with some pride.
Late-season collapses, especially when they come after three straight bitter playoff exits, sow the seeds to future disintegration. If the current version of the Capitals just isn’t good enough to keep its appointment with a Stanley Cup destiny, then there will be plenty of time to find that out. Let’s not be in a hurry to embrace bad news.
If the Great Eight is never coming back, if Mike Green is injury-prone in perpetuity, if Backstrom’s concussion symptoms, which have him home recuperating in Sweden, are some ill omen, we’ll know soon enough. But cope with that in the future.
For now, the Capitals, and their supportive fan base that only boos them on the worst moments of their poorest nights, need to do what this team has done best for the last four seasons: take it to the wire. Every time the Caps have needed to hit the whip to reach the playoffs or win the Southeast, they’ve done it. This will be the hardest test. But that’s the job.
“Last season, we were still behind [Tampa Bay] three-quarters of the way through the season, but we won the division,” Brooks Laich said after the Caps lost their third straight home game on Tuesday night, 4-3 in overtime to Carolina. “A lot can happen in the last 16 games. That’s when you find out the true identity of a team. I still believe we can be an elite team.