Caps Make Some of Their Own Bad LuckPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
Last Tuesday night, the Capitals authored an important 4-0 win over the Florida Panthers, a victory that vaulted Washington back into the top spot of the Southeast Division and into the third seed for Eastern Conference playoff positioning. To a man, the Caps talked after the game about what an important triumph that was, and noting that the contest resembled a playoff game in the way they prepared for it and treated it. Since then, the Caps have stumbled. “It’s really frustrating,” said Caps forward Matt Hendricks after Monday’s loss to the Sharks, the Caps’ third setback in succession. “A few days ago we were first in the division, sitting third in the conference. We lose a couple, and then going into [Monday] if we win, we move ahead of Toronto and we’re in eighth. The carrot is there, the determination is there I think in this room. I think the focus is there. The execution just isn’t there right now.” Coaches are often reluctant to mess with a winning formula, especially after such a convincing victory in such an important game. Caps coach Dale Hunter took a different tack, taking struggling right wing Mike Knuble out of the lineup for the following game, a Thursday night home contest against Winnipeg. Knuble played 10:07 in the Tuesday win against Florida, including 1:40 while the Caps were shorthanded. Washington killed off all four Florida power plays without incident that night. Hunter inserted Jay Beagle into the lineup in Knuble’s place. The Caps were within three minutes of winning that game when disaster struck in the form of a pair of late power play goals from the Jets. Washington was forced to settle for a loser’s point in a loss to Winnipeg. Knuble remained out of the lineup for a Sunday loss to the Rangers in New York and a Monday setback to the Sharks at Verizon Center. Minor league journeyman Keith Aucoin played two of the three games Knuble missed, and minor league enforcer Joel Rechlicz played in one. The Caps never led against the Rangers or the Sharks, and having an eight-time 20-goal getter – even one in the throes of a career-long slump – doesn’t help you when you’re trying to mount a comeback if he’s sitting in the press box. Aucoin and Rechlicz played a combined total of 17 minutes in the last three games, all Washington losses. Knuble has averaged 14:18 per night this season, his lowest per-game average since 2001-02. Even with his diminished ice time this season, Knuble has averaged 1:25 per night in shorthanded ice time in 2011-12, fourth highest among all Capitals forwards. In the three games Knuble sat out, the Caps surrendered five power play goals in 11 opposition extra-man chances. Sitting Knuble for a game made some sense. Sitting him for three straight doesn’t seem conducive to getting him going personally or helping the team win. It’s hard to fathom a couple of career minor leaguers being able to help a team desperate for standings points more than a proven pro with more than 1,000 games worth of NHL experience. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun has been at the top of his game since the NHL’s All-Star break, stopping 150 of 159 shots for a 1.76 GAA and a .943 save pct. in five starts. But he has just two wins – both shutouts – in those five starts. Vokoun came down with a case of the flu over the weekend in New York, and back-up Michal Neuvirth filled in admirably on short notice against the top team in the Eastern Conference, the New York Rangers. The Caps lost, 3-2. Badly needing a point or two on Monday against San Jose, the Caps decided to call up Braden Holtby from AHL Hershey and give him his first NHL start in nearly 11 months. Holtby was very strong early, but he was nicked for a fluky goal in the first, three power play goals and another that found its way behind him through a screen in front. The Caps lost, 5-3. Sure, Neuvirth had started the day before. But so did Holtby; he faced 35 shots in a Sunday game in Hershey. By the time Holtby took the crease for that game, Neuvirth was already headed back to D.C. on the train from New York. He was actually the more rested of the two goaltenders, and he didn’t have to travel from Hershey to Washington on a game day, either. Hopefully Washington will have Vokoun back for Friday’s game against the Panthers in Florida, the first game of a four-game trip, the Capitals’ longest to date this season. Washington is 9-15-3 on the road this season, and it is 2-5-2 in its last nine road games. Both of those road wins came in Montreal; the Caps haven’t won a road game against a team currently in the playoff picture since a Dec. 7 win at Ottawa. Neuvirth will likely have to start for the Caps again soon; that game in Florida starts a stretch of six games in nine nights for Washington. That’s a heavy workload for Vokoun to handle by himself, as a guy coming off a bout with the flu. Washington now has its first pair of consecutive regulation losses in more than a month, and its first three-game losing skid since a four-game drough from Nov. 25-Dec. 1. Between now and Friday, the Caps can only sit and watch and hope the teams they’re chasing and the teams that are chasing them don’t pile up too many points. “That is something we talked about going into [Monday] night,” said Hendricks. “We wanted to make sure that we went into this little break that we have feeling good and knowing that we got the points that we needed tonight. To not have done that, we’re going to have to sit and watch [other teams] play and accumulate points in the standings.” The Caps have had to make do without top defenseman Mike Green and ace center Nicklas Backstrom for long stretches of time. And Vokoun’s flu bug came along at the worst possible time. But the Caps can help themselves, too, and you can argue that they don’t seem to be doing that as far as the Knuble and Neuvirth situations are concerned.
The 2011-12 Washington Capitals started the season with seven straight victories. Just over a month later, they fired their head coach. They’ve been without their best defenseman – a two-time Norris nominee – for most of the season. They’ve been without their No. 1 center – one of the best in the