By: Joe Pohoryles
It seems like every season in recent years, the Capitals will start the season hot and roll for a few months, hitting a bump here and there, before they inevitably hit a midseason skid. For fans, it’s as if the sky is falling. The year the Caps won the Cup, people were saying, “Barry Trotz should be fired.” The past couple seasons, it has been “Todd Reirden should be fired,” and that sentiment is in overdrive now as the team has lost four of their last five games and six of their last 10.
But let’s pump the brakes here.
Losing is never fun, and this team has obvious kinks to work out, but it is February, and losing skids are going to hit every team at some point. For the Tampa Bay Lightning, they started the season out of playoff position just after winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2019, but they’re in the midst of an epic turnaround.
When they lost to the Caps 3-1 on Dec. 21, their record became 17-13-4. They were 6th in the Atlantic Division, and would need quite an effort to climb back into the playoff race. In the near-two months since that loss to the Caps, they have gone 23-2-1, with two separate 10-game winning streaks. They just won their 11th in a row last night against the Colorado Avalanche in overtime. They sit just one point behind the Boston Bruins for the Atlantic Division lead, have the second-most points in the entire league, and have the most wins with 40.
Clearly, the Lightning are trending up, but just because the Caps are hitting a snag does not mean they will tank down. Of course, that is a possibility, but there is no reason to think something that drastic would happen at this point.
The losing has to stop. At multiple times earlier this season, the Caps had the most points in the league. The Presidents’ Trophy winners have not had the best luck in the playoffs when looking at recent history, so perhaps it’s not an entirely bad thing that they’re not on the very top. Still, winning the Metro division again would be nice, but they sit just one point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won seven of their last 10.
The Caps face Pittsburgh on Feb. 23, so the intensity should be even higher than usual for that game, but first they face-off against the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils. Wins over these two bottom-half teams could help put the Caps back on track. They’ve suffered a bad loss to each one earlier this season, but they’ve also beaten each convincingly at other points.
After a record stretch, Alex Ovechkin has been held goalless in five straight games, but that has not been the only issue. Pretty much everyone not named T.J. Oshie has been slowed down offensively, and the defense has been an issue for most the of year. Although they suffered a 7-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 8, then a 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders on Feb. 10, opponents have been held to less egregious tallies in the three most recent games.
To shore up the defense even more, the Caps just traded for defenseman Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2020 second-round pick and a conditional third-round pick in 2021. The Caps had an issue on the blue line with neither Nick Jensen nor Radko Gudas looking like suitable second-pair defensemen. Both are right-shot defensemen, and Dillon is a left-shot, so the defensive pairings will require a shake-up, but hopefully it will work out for the better.
Dillon will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, but the Sharks agreed to pay 50 percent of Dillon’s $3,270,000 cap hit, which is a big deal since the Capitals are so close against the salary cap ceiling.
Dillon has 14 points (1g, 13a) in 59 games this season. He has posted over 20 points in each of the past two seasons, but his offensive contributions are not what he was brought in for. Dillon is a physical defenseman who has big-game experience. He’s ninth in the NHL with 178 hits, and has played with the Sharks in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final as well as the 2019 Western Conference Final.
The acquisition carries on the annual tradition of the Brian MacLellan regime adding a defenseman at the deadline. In 2018, the team traded for Michal Kempny, and it proved an essential piece in the Stanley Cup run. Last year, Jensen was added at the deadline, but without the same success as the Kempny deal.
Dillon’s fit could make or break the team’s Cup chances. They’re certainly a contender regardless, but more has to be done to turn the ship around and get hot at the right time. Hopefully once Ovi finally reaches the 700 goal milestone, he’ll get back into his scoring ways, and the rest of the offense can follow suit. For now, they have to make sure to not lose ground in the Metro standings.
(Cover Photo Credit: Kyle Terada / USA Today Sports)