If things go like sane people think, the Capitals could be starting 2012 with a record of 18-17-2 (this assumes they lose to the Rangers and Buffalo – teams that have already dominated the Caps this season – and beat Columbus).
That is going to leave the Caps a deep hole from which to dig to make the playoffs (but not as deep as you might think…we’ll get to that). How might they get into the top-eight you ask? Well, there are things to look for as the months of the 2012 calendar flip over…
The Caps have six home games and six road games in the month, with the hard part coming early and the sneaky part coming late. After the Caps host Calgary to open 2012 they go on the road to San Jose and Los Angeles. The Caps do not do well on the left coast in the best of times, and a split of those games would have to be thought of as “better than expected.” That makes the ensuing home stand the critical part of the month. It is a four-gamer that starts with Pittsburgh, followed up by Tampa Bay, Carolina, and the Islanders. Given where the Caps are likely to start the 2012 portion of the season, winning three of these four is critical.
The four-game home stand is followed by a three game road swing to Montreal, Carolina, and Pittsburgh. The Caps have sucked on toast on the road this season, and they need to show an ability to at least hold their own away from Verizon Center. They will be getting two teams below them in the standings (as of today, December 28th) and a team they have not lost to on enemy ice in quite some time (December 27, 2007 in overtime; February 18, 2007 in regulation). Splitting the six points here should be regarded as the minimally acceptable outcome.
By our reckoning, if the Caps split the last two games of the month between Boston and Tampa Bay, January works out to a record of 7-4-1. Season record: 25-21-3/53 points
This is not just a month that is a run-up to the trading deadline, it will be the make or break month for the Caps in an important respect. Of the 14 games they will play in February, six will be played against Southeast Division opponents (teams they have dominated in recent years), three others will be against teams currently below them in the standings (Montreal twice and the Islanders), and another will be against a team they are battling with for a playoff berth (Ottawa). Given that three of the other four games will be played against current powerhouses Boston, the Rangers, and San Jose, the Caps need to make hay while the sun shines on those ten games against lesser opponents.
The Caps will open the month by closing a three game road trip. From Tampa Bay to close January, the Caps will visit Florida and Montreal. We are not convinced that the Panthers are all they have been in the 2011 portion of the season. In fact, they are 3-3-3 in their last nine games and have allowed 31 goals in doing so. We have to think that even on the road, three points in those two games is more than doable.
The Caps then return for a three-game home stand with Boston opening it and closing it with Florida and Winnipeg. The Caps were once – and are still, to some degree – a formidable home team. Winning all three should not be considered impossible, but we would set a floor under four points for the three games.
The six-game stretch that follows is what could make or break the season. The Caps travel to New York to take on the Rangers, come home for one game against San Jose, then go on the road for four. By mid-February, the Caps should be favored in all four of those road games – Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Ottawa. But it sure would be nice to gain a split in those first two games of this critical six-game split. It is here that the Caps need to start (if they haven’t already) their finishing kick to end the season on a roll heading into the playoffs. If they stumble here, they will have serious problems. Complicating the matter for the Caps is that in this six-game run they will have two back-to-back series: the first two (at the Rangers and home to San Jose) and the next two (at Florida and at Tampa Bay).
It is a tough month, but 19 points looks reasonable – a 9-4-1 record. Season record: 34-25-4/72 points.
By now, the roster will be set. Whatever tweaking George McPhee and his team will do will be done. And it is good thing, too, because March will be a long month. Sixteen games in 31 days, three back-to-backs. The best to be said about this month is that the Caps have nine home games. But there is a five-game road trip in the middle of the month that could kill them.
Before that road trip, the Caps will open the month with four home games – New Jersey, Philadelphia, Carolina, and Tampa Bay. Six points, minimum. The Caps have to bank these points for what awaits them later in the month. Right before the big road trip the Caps will visit Boston for the first time this season and will return home to finish their season series against Toronto. Split. That will make the Caps 4-2-0 as they head out for the five-game road swing that will take them to Long Island, Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. One would have to think the Caps have to win the first two of those games, grab at least two points out of the other three. A 3-2-0 road trip would be a big boost heading into the last two weeks of the season.
But booby traps will remain in March. The Caps will play four of their last five games of March at home, but Minnesota and Buffalo certainly have the capacity to give the Caps fits. Add in that the lone away game is the Caps’ second visit to Boston of the month, and the end of March looks daunting. Of course, if their five-game road trip was unsuccessful, it might not matter much how they end March. 3-2-0 would not be the worst way to end the month, finishing March up at 10-6-0. Season record: 44-31-4/92 points.
We are left with three games in April to close the season – on the road at Tampa Bay and the Rangers, with a home date against Florida splitting the road games. By this time Tampa Bay should have long been eliminated, and we have our doubts that Florida would be a strong team by this point of the season. Wins there offsetting a loss to the Rangers in the season finale would not be the best way to end the season, but the loss to the Rangers also presumes that the Caps will have clinched a playoff berth. The 2-1-0 April record would leave the Caps at 46-32-4 and 96 points.
There are those who will look at this scenario and the Caps’ 28-15-2 record in the 2012 portion of the season and think that Cheerless thought this up. The fact is, it would resemble last year’s post-New Year’s record (26-11-6) and would result in fewer wins and standings points in that portion of the season than two of the previous three seasons.
The flip side is that the Caps have to start playing more like the team they were the last four seasons than the one they have been through the 2011 portion of the season so far. What helps them out is that looking at the standings, standings points, and games played, the “Mirtle Threshold” of 92-points to make the playoffs might be high. At the moment, Winnipeg is on a pace to finish with 89 points and finish eighth in the Eastern Conference. The Caps are on a pace to finish ninth with 87 points. It would not take much of a bump to push the Caps ahead of the Jets and into the top eight. It is still a situation that merits concern. It is still not the time for panic.
Just play a little bit better, boys.