I feel like this happens every year.
As a lifelong Caps fan, I have 35+ years of listening to, watching, and attending Capitals games to draw from. In each of these seasons it seems like the Caps hit the skids at some point. Some years it’s at the beginning of the season. Sometimes it happens at the mid-point. Then there are the really painful ones. The ones where they win a(nother) President’s Trophy, go up 3-1 on Pittsburgh in the 2nd round, and then disappear.
There are myriad reasons this could be happening to this team. Some Caps fans are concerned, but many are not ready to hit the panic button just yet. The second group of people is wrong. Since many hockey fans use the All-Star Break to take stock of their favorite team, I will do that with my beloved Champs. The Caps have lost 7 games in a row (0-5-2) for the first time since the mid-1980’s, long before they were a perennial playoff contender. That fact in and of itself is not the problem, but here’s what is:
They are tired
Playing till the second week in June makes an NHL hockey season unbelievably long. Calendrically, it’s longer than a baseball season. When your team loses in mid-May (or worse), you don’t really have an appreciation for this. This makes what back-to-back champions like the Red Wings and ::gulp:: Penguins did even more impressive*. This brings me to point #2.
*writers note: I f***ing hate the fact that I just had to give the Penguins credit
They are not “The Young Guns” anymore
Holy crap! Look at those haircuts! This is the Caps “Young Guns” era, circa 2010. The team that won the Presidents Trophy and then was ousted as a #1 seed by the #8 Canadiens and a goalie by the name of Jaroslav Halak. Mike Green, Alexander Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom were all under the age of 25. Alexander Semin was the “old man” of the bunch at 26. While Ovechkin and Backstrom are arguably still in the prime of their careers (Ovechkin did just win another scoring title), Mike Green was almost out of hockey due to cervical spine surgery, and Alexander Semin at 34 is already 3 years removed from the NHL. Speaking of Alexander Semin…
There was a school of thought in Washington that while Ovechkin was a once-in-a-generation goal scoring talent, he was not the most naturally gifted Russian hockey player on a Capitals roster that at one time had Ovechkin and Sergi Federov on it. That title belonged, in the eyes of some, to Alexander Semin. He had freakish talent, but often looked like he didn’t care about hockey, and even worse, sometimes he looked like he didn’t want, or forgot how to play. Inconsistency in his play earned him nicknames like “The Enigma” and “Ghost”. We have another Russian headed down the Semin path at the moment. His name is Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Great Russian Disappearing Act 2.0 is just as frustrating now as it was the first time around with Semin. And don’t even get me started on how “Top Line Tommy” has gone from hero to zero in the blink of an eye. Seriously, he has 1 assist in the past 7 games, and he hasn’t knocked anyone out since before Christmas.
It’s hard to imagine that the defending Stanley Cup Champions would miss a 169 pound, second year defenseman much, but that is exactly what is happening. Djoos is out indefinitely with compartment syndrome in his leg, an injury that required surgery in December. The Caps are no stranger to compartment syndrome. Djoos’ injury is not believed to be as bad as the Dennis Wideman injury, but still serious enough to have no timetable for a return to the ice. With Djoos sidelined, D men are playing out of position and logging extra minutes. Minutes a 38 year old, oft-injured, oft-maligned Brooks Orpik can’t handle. Much in the same way the addition of Michal Kempny allowed the Capitals defensive core to slot into correct position in time for last year’s historic playoff run, the Djoos injury throws the defensive pairings into chaos.
This one is as simple as it is painful. The general rule of thumb says an NHL caliber goaltender should have a save percentage above 90%. During the 7-game skid, Braden Holtby is sub .87, and Pheonix Copley is even worse, clocking is below .86. One must wonder if the eye injury Holtby sustained against Columbus on Jan. 12th (a 2-1 loss that started the Caps 7 game losing streak), an injury he later admitted took longer to clear up than expected, could still be causing some lingering problems?
The Caps are in trouble. It’s time to panic.