I hope that was as bad as it gets. It’s hard to imagine how it could get much worse than last night’s 5-0 loss against a depleted Carolina Hurricanes squad. Cal me an optimist, but if that’s the low point, and the team can pull it together for the final 23 games of the season, this campaign won’t be a lost cause.
That is not to say, with less than a week until the NHL’s trade deadline, that the status quo is good enough to make the playoffs. Change needs to and will occur. The Capitals are too close to the Eastern Conference’s top eight teams to be sellers, but with a nearly-full payroll and the very real chance there will be no postseason hockey in D.C., general manager George McPhee will also need to be a very cautious buyer.
This is life in the Phone Booth. Things are never as good, or bad, as they seem. Even after the debacle at RBC Center, the 2011-12 Capitals are not a lost cause. Yet.
There was a faint notion that the season had been saved after Friday night’s 2-1 victory against division-leading Florida. The Caps’ Southeast Division road trip took a sour turn the next night in Tampa, and snowballed into the route in Raleigh last night. The team heads to Ottawa to finish out the road trip before playing seven of their next nine games at Verizon Center, including a five-game home stand. The mantra for that stretch is simple: win or die. The team will have to eek out every imaginable point for those games to weather the five-game Mid-march road swing that includes dates at Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia.
Given all of this information, why do I think the team is not able to be written off yet? Momentum is important in sports, but ultimately I’d rather buy low on a team hat has yet to realize its potential than a team who has peaked out in February. Look at the New York Giants. It’s not a race, and it’s not a marathon. It’s two consecutive marathons, and the game is all about surviving the first one with enough left in the tank for the second. We’ve learned all too well in the post-lockout NHL that it’s hard to be unbeatable and carry a top seed from October to June. It’s also worth noting that the team has generally responded well to trades under McPhee, and while a blockbuster deal bringing in replacement star center for the concussed Nick Backstrom isn’t in the works, some real help could genuinely be on the way.
Of course, the Caps are now flirting with leaving so much in the tank that they might not get a chance to see if coming in the back door is easier than the front. A their current rate, the team will finish with 87ish points. Things simply must improve over the final push. It’s a dangerous game the team has played these past four seasons. It’s like driving without insurance. You can take an extreme amount of caution, care, and rely on your skill, but eventually reality will catch up with you. There are no perfectly-balanced clubs in the NHL, but Washington has, forgive the pun, skated by on over-relying on their obvious strengths for too long. Eventually the glaring holes, namely a lack of depth at center and defense, will catch up to you. Add in injuries to two of your biggest stars and a scoring slump for your franchise player, and you have a recipe for what Capitals enthusiasts had to know was a possibility.
Without the high-value signing of Tomas Vokoun and the early-season hot streak of Jason Chimera, many more would’ve already abandoned hope for this year. The musical chairs game of playoff seeding hasn’t left the Capitals out in the cold yet, but the music is slowing to a stop. This may be unfamiliar territory to newly-minted Caps fans, but teams scrap their way into the NHL playoffs all the time. Montreal showed the Capitals in 2010 just how dangerous an eighth seed can be.
In any study of storytelling, one of the first things you learn is the dramatic structure, and the convention that at the end of Act II, about 2/3 of the way through your story, the protagonist hits their lowest point possible. Everything seems to be falling apart around them, and all hope appears futile. The 2011-12 Capitals season could be called a lot of things, and “storybook” isn’t one of them. Still, the math allows that the team could just be hitting its nadir with just enough time for a heroic fight to the finish. Perhaps they will slide farther back in the division race and begin thinking about next season. Maybe hockey in early April will be meaningless for a different reason than it has been for the past four years.
But maybe not. There’s nowhere to go from here but up (hopefully).