With a 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks Sunday, the Washington Capitals have now dropped four contests in a row.
Their Metropolitan Division counterpart Pittsburgh Penguins have reeled off five straight victories after weekend wins over the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, and are now only one point back of the Capitals for first place in the division, conference, and league.
Pittsburgh also has a game in hand on Washington.
“Every team gets their slumps and this is their time, so I don’t know how much I panic about it,” NHL Insider Elliotte Friedman said of the Capitals during a Monday morning radio hit on Calgary’s Sportsnet 960. “I thought it was interesting that last night after the game they had a post-game meeting and I guess Brooks Orpik had some pretty awkward comments where one of the reporters asked him what has to happen, and he said basically we have to get our focus back on the game. They tried to follow up with him and he said, ‘Well, that’s all I’m going to say about that.’
“So those comments will definitely be parsed. What is he talking about there, what is the off-ice stuff they’re worried about, and who is he talking about. Plus, Ovechkin has gone 10 games without scoring. You never see that in his history.
“The one thing is that’s interesting is I don’t know if this is it, but people did warn about it. You go out and get Shattenkirk and all of the sudden John Carlson loses his power play time. There was one game they had an empty net and they were down a goal, and they threw Shattenkirk out there and Carlson wasn’t out there.
“I’m not saying Carlson is a malcontent or anything like that, that’s not where I’m going here. But there’s no question going out and getting Shattenkirk – as good as it was – it’s taken some people out of their regular roles.
“Nate Schmidt didn’t play and he’s back in the lineup now because Shattenkirk’s suspended. Even he, who’s one of the most positive guys around, admitted his disappointment in not getting to play.
“I just wonder did they upset the apple cart a bit. I know they talked about it internally and they worried about that very thing. Everybody should be on the same page because you’re all going out to win the Stanley Cup, but sometimes people get bent out of shape and I wonder if that’s happened a bit there.”
It’s no secret that this team’s Achilles Heel has been post-season success.
The Sportsnet 960 discussion shifted to how most teams might be “excited for the playoffs to begin,” but the Capitals – “not that they’re scared for the playoffs” – might view the playoffs as “hanging there, waiting for them.”
“I wonder about that too,” said Friedman. “I think it’s a fair question. I think that team is pretty mature though.
“I don’t know if it was last night or two nights ago when they lost to L.A., but they asked Justin Williams about their struggles and he basically said, ‘Whatever.’ And I think that’s the kind of attitude you have to have. I think that’s a pretty mature team that’s been through a lot.”
The quote to which Friedman may have been referring came Saturday night, and was a solid answer from the veteran winger.
“There’s obviously frustration, but we can’t whine and cry about it like babies,” Williams said, via The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan. “We’ve lost three in a row. Big deal. Pick it up and get the next one. The good news is, there’s usually another game in hockey the next day.”
Friedman continued his point.
“Sometimes I wonder if we’re over-thinking it because they’ve been going so good for so long that they’re bound to have a dip,” he said. “It’s just tough though. I mean, they’ve been on such a tear and all of the sudden Pittsburgh is right on their tail and Columbus is right there too.
“That first seed in the East is so valuable because you’re getting Toronto or the Islanders or Tampa. Tampa is an interesting one. At least they have some experience at it in the playoffs. I think you want that (first seed.) You’d much rather finish first than have to deal with Pittsburgh, Columbus, or the Rangers in the first round. So I think that’s a sense of urgency that runs into this.
“But I do look at them and say they’re a mature group. They’ve been through a lot, good and bad. And they should be able to handle this mentally.”
If the Capitals are going to make any noise in the playoffs, their path will likely cross with the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins at some point – a team that has kept winning despite a rash of injuries.
“The thing that I like about Crosby is he’s such a pro,” noted Friedman. “He brings a certain level every night. I think Malkin is a bit more up and down, but Crosby – you know what you’re getting from him every night.
“Those goalies have been really good. Fleury was the best player on the ice the other night in Edmonton, I thought, in what was a great game – maybe the best game of the year. He was so good, including stopping McDavid on that breakaway in overtime. I think that has given it to them all year long.
“I just think the toughest thing is, I just don’t know in four out of seven – if they don’t have Letang – Letang was such a great player last year in the playoffs. Crosby gets all the headlines and Kessel gets all the headlines and the goaltending battle gets all of the headlines, but Letang is such an important player for them. I just don’t know if – as good as they are – if they’re going to be able to win it if Letang is not healthy.
“But boy, I am really excited about your game tonight. You guys are going for 10 in a row and they’re the standard by which everything is set.
“I’ll tell you the other thing too. Washington goes out and they get Shattenkirk and everybody is saying, ‘Wow, that’s the team to beat.’
“Pittsburgh’s feeling is, ‘Let me at them.’ I can’t tell you how much Pittsburgh wants their shot at Washington.
“I don’t think necessarily historical records matter today, but there’s something about those two teams when they meet in the playoffs that no matter how good Washington is, Pittsburgh always finds that extra gear. It happened again last year.
“I just think Pittsburgh sits there and says, ‘They can go out and get whoever they want. They’ve never beaten us when it mattered.’
“And I think Pittsburgh’s got that swagger to them. But it’s going to be so hard if 58 can’t play. I just don’t know if they can do it without him.”