A play­off run or end of an era?

Two paths for sea­son: Start of

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather -

It’s games like Tues­day night’s that make you won­der whether the Washington Cap­i­tals might be suf­fer­ing from some mys­te­ri­ous mal­ady. Is there such a thing as at­ten­tion­d­eficit dis­or­der? What else would ex­plain a 5-1 loss on home ice to a Buf­falo club that’s com­pet­ing with the Caps for the final play­off berth? If a game like that doesn’t get your blood pump­ing, doesn’t bring out your In­ner Gret­zky, you might be in the wrong busi­ness.

De­fense­man Karl Alzner of­fered the opin­ion the next day that the Cap­i­tals “usu­ally play bet­ter against the good teams, not teams that are near us or be­low us in the stand­ings.”

That would cer­tainly ex­plain the no-show against the Sabres — not to men­tion the blow­ing of a 3-0 lead against Win­nipeg, an­other post­sea­son hopeful, two games ear­lier. Still, you’d think the Caps had been to­gether long enough, had lost enough of these games and enough of these play­off se­ries, to have learned

It’s a dan­ger­ous game of goal­tender roulette be­cause the wrong call can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween mak­ing and miss­ing the play­offs.

To go with Holtby on Tues­day seemed like a no-brainer, but the calls start be­com­ing more dif­fi­cult. Vok­oun pro­nounced him­self “avail­able” and ready to play af­ter bat­tling a lin­ger­ing groin in­jury, and the veteran has 25 of the Caps’ 38 wins this sea­son.

“I’m al­most 36 years old and ... for some guys there’s so many more chances. Prob­a­bly not for me,” Vok­oun said. “So this rides a lot for the team and for me on these next five games. So if you can, you want to be in there.”

So it has to be Vok­oun . . . un­less it’s Neu­virth. The 23-year-old’s game seemed to be round­ing into form ear­lier this month, but he has played in just four of the past 10 games, thanks to Holtby’s run.

Neu­virth, who called his game and con­fi­dence “good,” is ac­cus­tomed to this carousel ride.

“I got kind of used to it. You never know, and it is what it is. You’ve just got to work hard in the prac­tices, and if you’re told you’re play­ing, you’ve got to give your best,” he said. “It’s not my decision. That’s why we’ve got a coach . . . I’m pretty sure me, Holtsy or Vokey is go­ing to try our best.”

Yes, Holtby, the 22-year-old re­cent call- up from the Amer­i­can Hockey League who tried his best to make a dark-horse run to be the Caps’ play­off goal­tender.

“I’m con­fi­dent in my abil­i­ties. As to car­ry­ing the team into the play­offs, I re­ally don’t know how to an­swer that be­cause I’m fo­cus­ing on this game,” Holtby said Tues­day, be­fore giv­ing up three goals in just more than a pe­riod against the Sabres. “I’d love to. That’s the goal, ob­vi­ously, for any­one.”

That’s the goal for Vok­oun, Neu­virth and Holtby, and the Caps’ play­off hopes ride on which goal­tender or goal­tenders Hunter chooses to ride down the stretch.

For play­ers, there are ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ences, such as how much each goalie likes to han­dle the puck. But for the most part, the Caps don’t care.

“For us as play­ers, it’s easy; I don’t know what it’s like for the goalies,” de­fense­man Karl Alzner said. “We’re all com­fort­able with any one of them, so it doesn’t mat­ter.” from the ex­pe­ri­ence. Ap­par­ently not. The ed­u­ca­tion goes on.

At any rate, there are five games left in the sea­son, and if they don’t go well we could be look­ing at the last five games of an era. Let’s face it, if the Cap­i­tals don’t qual­ify for the post­sea­son, isn’t Ge­orge Mcphee pretty much re­quired to make ma­jor changes? Don’t he and Ted Leon­sis have to ad­mit to them­selves that the foun­da­tion they’ve built isn’t nearly as strong as they thought it was? Or do they just use Nick Back­strom’s ex­tended ab­sence as an ex­cuse to tinker in the off­sea­son in­stead of tak­ing out the sledge­ham­mer?

Back­strom was fly­ing around the ice Wed­nes­day at Ket­tler Iceplex in an at­tempt to get his wind back and re­turn to the lineup. But the club, re­mem­ber, was strug­gling he took a knock to the nog­gin. With Nicky, the Caps are 15-15 in reg­u­la­tion this sea­son (and 6-2 in over­time and shootouts). With­out him, they’re 14-16 in reg­u­la­tion (and 3-6 in OT and shootouts). Not as dra­matic a dif­fer­ence as you might have ex­pected, is it?

The Pen­guins, mean­while, lost Sid­ney Crosby for 41 games last sea­son — and still made the play­offs by a com­fort­able mar­gin. This sea­son, they’ve been with­out him games — and, once again, will make the play­offs with plenty of room to spare. What does this tell us? Well, for one thing, it tells us the Pens, from top to bot­tom, are much more solid than the Caps. But it also sug­gests they might be bet­ter at tak­ing a punch. (And the im­por­tance of the lat­ter can never be un­der­es­ti­mated in this in­ju­ri­ous sport.)

It bears re­mind­ing, too, that even though the Cap­i­tals were the top seed in the East last sea­son, they fin­ished just 14 points ahead of the eighth seed (107 to 93). Only twice since the Caps came into be­ing in 1974 has the dif­fer­ence be­tween No. 1 and No. 8 been smaller. So they didn’t have to fall very far to drop be­low the play­off cut­line. In­deed, go­ing into Wed­nes­day night’s games only 19 points sep­a­rated the ninth-place Caps from the first-place New York Rangers.

So what it re­ally might come down to in this hair-split­ting con­test is: How many nights does a team show up? And is there any­body out there who thinks the Cap­i­tals rank very high in the Nights Shown Up depart­ment? If so, they couldn’t have been pay­ing much at­ten­tion to what went on at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter on Tues­day, when the Caps did ev­ery­thing Dale Hunter them to do.

As long­time fol­low­ers of the fran­chise are well aware, Hunter knows a thing or two about grind­ing out play­off spots. And he’s been try­ing to share this knowl­edge with his not-al­ways-re­cep­tive play­ers. Show­downs like the one against the Sabres re­quire you to play “play­off hockey,” he said. You can’t “give up too many chances early.” You’ve got to “be [the] bet­ter [team] in the first pe­riod. You can’t fall be­hind.” So what do the Cap­i­tals do in the first pe­riod? They fall be­hind 1-0, then 2-0.

Still, you look at the Caps’ re­main­ing games, and it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble they could find a way into the post­sea­son, with or with­out a late as­sist from Back­strom. Af­ter Thurs­day’s bat­tle at Bos­ton, they face four clubs — Mon­treal, Tampa Bay, Florida, Rangers — that might have noth­ing to play for, ei­ther be­cause they’re out of the play­offs or be­cause their seed is set.

That’s the Cap­i­tals’ best hope at the mo­ment, sorry to say. Maybe those last four teams will mail it in the way the Caps, too of­ten, mail it in. What do they call that, irony?

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cap­i­tals cap­tain Alex Ovechkin has been hot lately, but he was held off the score­sheet in a 5-1 loss to the Buf­falo Sabres at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter on Tues­day.

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