At the end of the day, the epitaph of this season for the Washington Capitals might read, “they ran out of time.” A couple of weeks ago, we thought the Caps were pretty much done with respect to any hopes of securing a playoff berth. Last week, we did not think their chances were altogether that good.
But today, the NHL trading deadline, the playoffs are not entirely out of the question. Why? Because the Washington Capitals have had two seasons in one, which is not all that surprising given that the Caps’ players did not have a training camp with which to familiarize themselves with a new coach with a new philosophy, one that resembles his predecessor’s philosophy only in that it is still ice hockey.
The Capitals got off to a miserable 2-8-1 start. By February 7th they sat in last place in the Eastern Conference. They were already seven points out of the Southeast Division lead and five points out of eighth-place, the last qualifier for the post season. Given the way the schedule was set up, with all games being of an “intra-conference” nature and so many opportunities for teams ahead of the Caps to earn points even while losing games, the climb back into contention looked daunting, even after just 11 games of a 48-game season.
But in the “second season” for the Caps, they are 15-9-1 since that awful start. If you compare the standings of teams today with those of February 7th, the Caps have the fifth-highest points-per-game average since February 7th. In fact, even “fifth place” might not be as bad as it sounds. If you look at records of Eastern Conference clubs since February 7th, there is a certain amount of clumping going on:
Pittsburgh and Montreal have been the class of the East, each averaging more than 1.5 points per game since February 7th. Then there is a group that includes Boston, Toronto, Washington, and Ottawa, separated by 0.15 standings points per game over the last almost two months. After that there is a group comprised of the Islanders and Rangers, plus Winnipeg and Philadelphia, separated by only 0.11 standings points per game in that span of time.
Put another way, since the Caps’ grisly start to the season, they are 102-point pace team over a full season. This is, now, a playoff-caliber team. That is not to say that they are a playoff team. That poor start looms large, and the Caps are still two points out of the division lead and three points out of eighth place with 12 games left to play.
The Caps have several things going for them as they head down the home stretch. First, they are playing comparatively well. Not a Pittsburgh of Montreal level of well, but not insignificantly, either. Second, the Caps will have eight of their last 12 games at home. The Caps have had, to date, a poor home record (8-8-0), but that is an anomaly given the Caps dominance at home over the past several years. One would think – or at least hope – that something to play for in front of their own fans will inspire the club to raise its game at home. Then there is the matter of their learning curve in adopting head coach Adam Oates’ style of hockey. The Caps still have only 36 games of real-time experience in applying Oates’ philosophy in NHL games. There is still an arc to travel on that curve, which suggests that further improvement is possible.
The players have earned themselves a shot at pushing for the playoffs without blowing up this roster. And while we do not have particular use for the phrase “anything can happen in the playoffs” (anything “can” happen, but anything rarely “does” happen, it seems, after the first round), the New Jersey Devils finished sixth in the East last season and went to a Stanley Cup final. The Capitals might be that team that "no one wants to play against" in the post-season. We cannot know at this point what effects and trading deadline deals might have on the Caps or their competitors, but the fact remains that the Caps have the fifth highest points-per-game average since their terrible start. It is still an uphill climb, but it might be time to cue the music.
Don’t stop believin’…
…unless they just run out of time.