Here we stand. The Washington Capitals have 29 points in the standings, good for 10th place in the East. They are three points out of 8th place, although the teams tied at 32 have played one less game. Winnipeg still leads the Southeast Division, although they’ve played two more games than Carolina, who are just two points behind.
The Caps have 17 games left this season — just 5 games until the April 3rd trade deadline. Before then, they’ve got to figure out if they are a playoff team or not. The stakes are high.
According to Sports Club Stats, the Capitals currently have about a 30% chance of making the playoffs. That’s an improvement of about 24% since before winning those back-to-back games in the dirty Peg.
Before the Caps curbstomped the Jets on Friday night, Neil Greenberg put it like this:
#Caps prob need 10-11 wins out of the next 18 games for a playoff spot. Think they have it in them?
— Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg) March 22, 2013
So let’s see if we can find 9 or 10 more wins in the remaining schedule. I’ve put the Caps’ remaining opponents below in chronological order. Next to each team is the difference between the Caps and those teams in attempting shots at even strength while the score is close— i.e. how they tilt the ice. That’s the single best predictor we’ve got for a team’s future success. Positive numbers are good, negative numbers are bad.
|Opponent||Δ Ice Tilt%|
The Capitals have better puck possession than just three of their upcoming opponents: Buffalo, Tampa, and Toronto. Other than that, it’s going to be a hard row to hoe, or whatever that idiom is. I don’t see 9 or 10 wins here. Do you?
The Capitals have squeaked out wins against superior teams before, but they’ve had to rely on fantastically high shooting percentages (like scoring on every fourth shot on Friday) or brilliant performances by their goalies. Either one of those would be great, both would be ideal, but neither can be relied upon– at least not consistently. It’s just unreasonable to expect players to perform above their level for long stretches.
The odds are long, but not impossible. A handful of standout performances from guys like Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby would go a long way to closing the gap, but it is risky. Rosters will be locked after that first Hurricanes game. If the Capitals don’t use the trade deadline to prepare for next season, it’s looking pretty likely that they’ll end up missing the playoffs anyway before letting their unrestricted free agents walk without any return on value. Let’s call that the worst-case scenario.
But it didn’t have to be that way. The Caps’ wretched start may have put them at a disadvantage, but I think the team we’ve seen since the middle of February has been much better. At least until that weekend in New York. In back-to-back games against the Islanders and Rangers at the beginning of March, the Caps allowed 9 goals against, mustered just three of their own, and embarrassed themselves in front of a national audience. Those two losses sent the Caps’ likelihood of making the playoffs spiraling from 40% down to 14%.
That weekend really screwed the Caps, and we don’t even know how badly yet. We may not know for years. If the Caps are smart, they’ll make the moves they must to assemble a championship-caliber team for next season. But right now it’s looking awfully tempting to make a plucky-but-doomed push for the postseason, one that may very well be dashed by something as silly as Gary Bettman’s point for an overtime loss. Or even worse: the shootout (which the Caps still haven’t even played yet).
That playoff chase will probably end in the worst possible way: with the Caps in 9th or 10th place in the East– missing the playoffs, out of contention for a great draft pick, and letting a bunch of UFA contracts go without getting anything in return. The team will have mortgaged its future for no apparent reason.
Here are those unrestricted free agents. If the Caps don’t trade them before the deadline or re-sign ’em, they all turn into pumpkins after the final buzzer on April 27.
- Mike Ribeiro
- Joey Crabb
- Matt Hendricks
- Wojtek Wolski
- Eric Fehr
- Aaron Volpatti
- Tom Poti
- Jack Hillen
This is sink or swim time for the Capitals front office. I don’t envy George McPhee or Dick Patrick their positions right now. They’re probably going to be scoured either way.
So what do you think? Can the Caps make the playoffs? Should they even try?