If the season ended today is a phrase you should probably get used to hearing Caps fans. With Washington currently occupying the eighth and final playoff spot in the eastern conference, and (say it with me now)” if the season ended today” would be the final team into the Stanley Cup playoffs. However, it doesn’t and because there are still 19-games remaining, the Capitals and their fans are in an unusual situation this evening. The Southeast division leading Florida Panthers, who lead the Caps by three points, travel to Winnipeg to take on the Jets, who trail the Capitals by just one point for that final spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Ahhhhhhhhhh-who to cheer for right! Well that decision depends on how much stock you place into Washington’s current three game winning streak. This is a matter of whether as a fan of one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL this season you see the glass half full, or half empty at this point of the season. For the fifth time this season, and not since Jan-11- 15 have the Caps won three games in row.  Back then, Washington defeated Pittsburgh, Carolina, and Tampa Bay to earn six points in a four day stretch. This time, Washington beat Montreal, Toronto, and the New York islanders to do the same.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE:

Since Jan-11, the capitals have won just 10-games, and were 6-7-1 during the month of February. Of
the six wins the Caps earned in the month, only one came against a team currently slated to make the post season, and that team is Florida, whom Washington beat twice. The combined record of the three teams the Caps have victories over during this win streak is 79-86-26 (.481 point percentage). Of the seven teams the Caps lost during the fifth month of the hockey season, five are currently playoff bound.

What does this all mean-- a lot if you think about the fact that the Caps are playing six current playoff teams in their next 11 games.  What’s worse for Washington is that four of those games will be on the road where Washington is just 11-18-3 this season, which is the third worst record road record in the conference this year. Now I’m not trying to pee on your Wheaties, I love the Caps too, but let’s face facts, numbers don’t lie, and these numbers certainly don’t favor Washington during the month of March.

The Capitals will need their special teams to come alive. The power play and the penalty kill must get better and become more consistent to win important games this time of the season.

 Lost in this current three game winning streak is the fact that Washington hasn’t scored a power play goal in 11 extra man chances. Now there is the proverbial” but” to this stat. The Canadiens have the league’s best penalty kill, and the Isles are a respectable 15th. The Maple Leafs, who are ranked next to last, had to kill just one Caps power play during the game. However, and make no mistake about it, the Caps power play is in a funk at a real bad time. They scored just five extra man markers in 46 chances (10.8 %) during February. 

GLASS IS HALF FULL:

The glass half full fact is that the Caps haven’t allowed a power play goal during the past three games, but they need to keep playing this way. Washington allowed 12 power goals during the month, which is only killing penalties at a 73.5 percent clip. Just so you know the Columbus Blue Jackets are last in the NHL with a 75.7 PK percentage. Simply put, the Caps special teams, if they don’t get better, won’t be good enough to make the playoffs.

Despite these paltry special teams’ numbers, and a sub 500 record during February, the Capitals are still in a playoff spot entering tonight’s games. The Capitals are perennial winners when scoring with the extra man and not allowing a power play goal.

The Capitals are 18-7-1 this season when they score a power-play goal. Washington owns a 13-1-0 record when scoring a power-play goal and not allowing a goal with the man advantage.

IS NEUVY NO.1 ?

There are a lot of good things starting to surface in D.C. Michael Neuvirth has steadied the sinking ship that was becoming the Caps goaltending situation. Last year’s No.1 guy, won his third straight start on Tuesday, and earned his ninth victory of the season in the process. He played well making 22-saves, and keeping the Caps in the game until they scored three times in the final in a span of 5:04, including Ovechkin’s game-winner at 1:35 of the overtime.

Since Jan-1, Neuvirth is now 4-2-1 in 10 appearances (seven starts) with a shutout, a 2.18 GAA and a .928 save pct. The Bjork look alike has allowed just five goals in his last three starts, and is now Neuvirth is 4-0-0 with a 1.86 goals-against average in five career games against the Islanders.  

It is highly likely that head coach Dale Hunter will ride Neuvy down the stretch, especially when you consider his disparaging remarks about Tomas Vokoun following his last start, in which he was pulled from the net for the second straight game during the first period.

The Capitals are also starting to get big-time secondary scoring, along with goal production from the Great 8. This may be why GM George McPhee may have ultimately decided to stand pat during Monday’s trading deadline.

Washington has scored 11 goals during their past three games as Mathieu Perreault, Jason Chimera, Joel Ward, Marcus Johansson, Jeff Halpern, and Keith Aucoin have all scored once. Alex Ovechkin, and Troy Brouwer, who score twice during the Caps late come from behind win on Tuesday, each have a pair.

Ovie has now recorded four points (two goals, two assists) in his last three games and has collected 27 points (16 G-11 A) in his last 28 games. While he wasn’t one the score sheet Tuesday, the other Alex (Semin) has collected seven points in his last seven games. He has two goals and five assists to match his plus/minus rating of plus-3.

The Caps blue liners continue to produce points as well. Washington’s 10 defenseman have combined to score 27 goals and record 90 assists for 117 points in the team’s 63 games this season. A defenseman has also contributed at least one point in 50 games.

The Caps are a dangerous team as they are talented, and desperate. Despite trailing at home to the last place Isles for 56 and a half minutes on Tuesday, the Capitals never got frustrated, and continued to do lots of things right. They worked hard, won battles along the walls and down low, possessed the puck, got pucks deep, got pucks to the net and on the net. 

In fact, during the past three games the Capitals are finally playing like they have actually fully digested the slice of humble pie this season has fed them, they are playing like a hickey team instead of a bunch of superstars who cannot believe they are in this position.

They never quit on Tuesday, and if you have watched the Caps recently, quitting was something that was starting to happen almost nightly. They surrendered the first goal in six straight games and lost five of them, but they have finally come to realize that little things win hockey games, not playing in flurries, or with flair, or as individuals. Washington is starting to win crucial face-off’s as Jeff Halpern did in the closing seconds of Tuesday’s game. With Caps goalie Michael Neuvirth pulled for an extra attacker, Halpern dug in and positioned his body completely over top the puck like he was the . He blocked out the Isles center from gaining control, and then Halpern dished it to Brooks Laich, who fed the puck to Dennis Wideman.

Wideman  passed back to Laich, who shot from the half-wall through a screen, and Troy Brouwer got a piece of it, as it went past Islander goalie Evgeni Nabokov to tie the game. Just moments before, Jason Chimera used his speed to negate an icing call, which led to Brouwer’s first tip in goal.

The Caps are starting to simply shoot the puck, and good things happen when the puck is heading towards the net. Washington has outshot their opponents in seven of their last 10 games. That’s a drastic change when you consider that they were outshot in nine of the 10 games previous to this 10-game stretch.

WHOM TO CHEER FOR:

If you are wondering what this means in terms of who to cheer for tonight, or when the Cats and Jets play again on Apr-3, my point is it doesn’t matter really matter. The Capitals need to take care of their own business.  After tonight, the Caps and Panthers will have each played 63 games, but the Winnipeg Jets will have played three more games than both. Washington still has two games with Winnipeg (@3/16, 3/23), and one more game with Florida at Verizon Center.

Some believe that Tuesdays win was a turning point as the Caps inch a little past the three quarter pole of the season, and they may be right. The Capitals and Islanders hooked up last season in the first game past the trading deadline with an outcome that was eerily similar.

The Islanders came to Verizon Center and started their third string net minder Nathan Lawson, and he carried a 1-0 lead into the final minute of the game. As they did on Tuesday, the Caps pulled goaltender Neuvirth for an extra skater, and scored the tying goal with just 48 seconds remaining in the game.

Brooks Laich scored the goal which was assisted by Jason Arnott, who was playing in his first game with his new team. Alex Ovechkin also ended that one at 1:55 of overtime when he scored on a beautiful breakaway for his 25th goal of the season. Both overtime winners were unassisted for the Great 8.

Following that victory Washington won seven straight games, and finished the season 14-3-1, winning their fourth straight Southeast title.  The schedule says that type of finish is unlikely for the Capitals, who have to travel to play the Blackhawks, Red Wings, Flyers, and Rangers once, while making two trips to play the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins twice.

Stranger things have happened, and wouldn’t it be sweet justice that following a season where the Capitals struggle to make the playoffs, they go onto to win the Stanley Cup. Especially after the disappointing playoff results from the past few post seasons, which followed great regular seasons.

THE ODDS MAKERS SAY:

The Capitals have 19-games remaining, and control their own destiny so to speak. According to Sportsclubstats.com, the Panthers have the best odds to make the playoffs with a 90.1 percent chance. The Cats only have to play .500 hockey the rest of the way to do so, and can go 10-9-1 to reach the 93 points the site says will be needed. Their road isn’t so easy either. Florida returns home to host Nashville and Ottawa before traveling to the Keystone State to play the Flyers and Penguins in their next four games.

The Capitals have a 72.5 percent chance to play later into the spring, and must go 12-7-0 to reach 93 points. If there was one team you have to cheer for in a Florida-Winnipeg matchup, it’s the Jets. Winnipeg has a 20.5 percent to make the playoffs and must finish 10-4-1 to reach the 93 point plateau.

The Caps must win at least eight of their 10 remaining home games, and at least four of the nine contests away from the District. That’s not that tall of an order, but it won’t be easy. It starts Friday night in the second game of their current five game home stand. Their opponent is the New Jersey Devils, who have the fifth best road record in the NHL this season with a 19-11-1 mark away from the swamps of jersey.

Currently the Jets lead the Panthers 2-0 after the second period. So, (here it comes again)” if the season ended today”, and this result holds, the Caps would not be in the playoffs but it doesn’t, so relax Caps fans.

According to the odds makers, the Jets will have done their part by beating Florida if the Caps want to win their fifth straight Southeast title.

Even without Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps have the necessary talent. But that talent, including their team captain, must continue to do the little things for 60 minutes. They must continue to get solid goaltending, and they must play better special teams. That is all a big “IF” Caps fans, but not an improbability by any means.

TAKIN CARE OF BUSINESS:

Washington simply needs to take care of business by playing little games within the game. They need to win the faceoff battle, fire more pucks on net, continue to play tough in front of both nets, and in the corners, and do this one period at a time.

In essence, the Caps need to treat the remaining 19 games as if they have 57 little 20-minute contests to play. While they won’t win them all, winning most will get them back to playoffs where anything can happen. One gets the feeling that the Caps play bored at times, and simply wants the playoffs to start. And who could blame them after the way they performed against Montreal and Tampa during the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

For the Caps it’s like playing a video game and making it almost the entire way through before getting killed or losing your man. You have to start over and go through the whole process again.

Unfortunately for the Washington Capitals, there is no memory card to insert to start at the end of the season. Washington wanted the playoffs to start back on October-8, the night they beat the Islanders 2-0 in the first game of the season. Fortunately for them, there are plenty of games left to be played. If they don’t play patient, and do the things mentioned above, when you finally say” today, the season has ended” the Washington Capitals could be on the outside looking in.