WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Capitals' return home from a six-game road trip on Tuesday night to play the Carolina Hurricanes saw the return of Alex Ovechkin and Jason Arnott to the lineup. It also served as a rude awakening to some issues the team might want to expunge in the next five games.
The injuries which have plagued the Caps throughout the second half of the season may prove to be their undoing. The consistency they want has been hard to achieve with Arnott, Ovechkin, Mike Green and others all missing games. With Ovechkin and Arnott back in action, it was apparent Washington must establish the necessary team chemistry to string together three periods of sound hockey each and every game.
"Just coming from a long road trip, a couple new guys on the ice; I just think everyone was kind of trying to feel each other out for a while there," John Carlson said.
Bruce Boudreau echoed Carlson, saying he thought Ovechkin's "timing was off." The team as a whole wasn't quite on the same page and it showed during stretches of play.
The power play has lot its sense of direction and is something of a liability these days. The Caps are 1-16 since a multi-goal performance on March 15 against Montreal. On Tuesday, a miscommunication between Brooks Laich and Dennis Wideman led to a Chad LaRose shorthanded breakaway and ensuing penalty shot. Yet when the Caps' power play wasn't fending off hard-charging penalty killing units, they managed to produce some exceptionally uninspired efforts in the offensive zone.
"In power play we give so many chances to them to score goals, like on the breakaway, we make some mistakes," Ovechkin said. "But we come back and it's good when we come back. It's good when you play that kind of game."
Carolina came into Washington a desperate team. The Caps matched their intensity for the first period, but Cam Ward withstood a barrage of shots, and so they resorted to taking the body after Tuomo Ruutu and Ovechkin nearly came to blows over an attempted hit on Wideman. The physical tone of the game was a good one and Matt Hendricks told me it was definitely a style the team wants to employ in the playoffs.
What wasn't good were the six penalties the team took. Alex Semin's hooking minor late in the third period was a perfect example of the undisciplined play the Caps have recently practiced. Semin hooked his man through the entire neutral zone and gave the Hurricanes a prime opportunity to score the winner in regulation.
"He did the same thing he's been doing for five years and taking a dumb penalty with four minutes to go in the game," Boudreau vented. "The refs didn't want to call any penalties, but you have to call that one. It's a bad hook in the neutral zone."
The Capitals may have the NHL's third-best penalty killing unit, but it should not lead to the mentality that they can withstand a rash of penalties. Eventually, the mistakes will overcome them as they are still dealing with young goalies and an offense trying to jell.
Injuries have forced the Capitals to drastically alter their lineup several times since the trade deadline, and while an 11-2-1 record in that span has put them back in the picture as a contender, it doesn't account for the lack of continuity and discipline on display.
Working out the kinks isn't a major concern especially with the Caps likely on their way to a fourth straight Southeast Division crown. What really matters is Washington's mental edge, which has deserted them in past postseason affairs. The only way to regain that edge? Stability, which is something they are trying to reach with mere games to go.
Their recent nine-game win streak gave them confidence, but the Capitals have their sights set on bigger things. They have done everything possible to detract from the nay-saying, but for all the changes to the system and trade deadline scrambling, Boudreau and the boys might just find the only way to silence the critics will be by hoisting a certain silver cup come June.