Seldom if ever have the Capitals had as many games to conclude the regular season that mean so little in the grand scheme of things as they do this spring. The Southeast division title was locked up not long after Valentine’s day, and effectively not long after Washington’s first blizzard this winter. The Caps began seriously pulling away from the rest of the Eastern conference immediately after the Olympic break. There’s still some mild drama related to the President’s trophy, and the Caps have never won that, but that’s almost a curse of sorts — in the 23 times the trophy has been awarded since 1985-86, only seven winners have gone on to claim the Stanley Cup.
(The San Jose Sharks, losers now of six consecutive games, seem almost to be playing possum about the President’s trophy and the postseason. Their 117-point club won the trophy last season and subsequently got bounced in the first round by Anaheim.)
Instead, head coach Bruce Boudreau is using almost the final quarter of his team’s regular season to get nearly 25 skaters rotated in and out of the lineup such that no player sits too long and loses any competitive edge. Healthy alterations to the lineup each night perhaps offer the coach a way to keep his charges interested in low-stakes hockey. No hockey player wants to sit. But for fans, the primal edge that hockey is commonly associated all winter long with has worn off a bit, hasn’t it? Saturday night’s game in Tampa carried all the intrigue and aura of a glorified exhibition game, didn’t it?
We watch these games this month largely hoping that the team maintains its health; that both Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore play well while one establishes himself as a clear go-to no.1 for the postseason; and that all of the newcomers to the team’s lineup acquired earlier this month get fully integrated and establish chemistry with line or partner pairings. Those are storylines to be sure, but a far cry from the intrigue and intensity of say Sunday, February 7, when Pittsburgh arrived in town for a nationally televised game on NBC, 18,000 Washingtonians braved a blizzard to red out Verizon Center, and Ovi notched a hat trick to cap a three-goal Caps’ comeback. Nor can games these days match the intrigue and interest associated with the week of January 18, when Philly, Detroit, and Pittsburgh were all on the slate.
We have Gary Bettman and his Southeast division configuration partly to blame for this.
As it relates to the Southeast division, it’s almost as if there ought to be a mercy rule invoked: the Capitals are quite good, while the rest of the division is, well, what the rest of the division annually is.
We watch Capitals’ hockey most nights now like we do those unending previews that are prelude to the much anticipated new release in a movie theater. A few previews are justifiable and, when well-executed, even of mild interest. But by about the seventh or eighth one you get fidgety in your seat. No Academy awards are handed out for excellent movie previews; nothing the Capitals earn or achieve in the regular season’s final 10 games is going to influence judgment on the success of this season. They’ve had a wondrous campaign, one that delivered a best-ever 14-game winning streak. It is abundantly clear that they are the class of the league. Still, they must play out this string. It’s mildly irritating. We are all that anxious to get the real verdict on the season rendered.
The actual drama that remains is largely individual-related. Will Ovi score 50 goals again (almost certainly), and will he win the league’s goals and overall scoring titles? Will Alexander Semin crack 40 goals for the first time in his career, and finish the season among the top 10 scorers? Can Nicklas Backstrom score 100 points for the first time in his career, and finish in the top 5 in league scoring?
Team-wise, the Caps will certainly better last season’s best-ever tally of 108 points, and now are chasing 120 points. They’d need to win seven of their final 10 games to do it, or come up with a combo that delivers 14 points. They’d need to score 45 goals in their final 10 games to average 4 goals a game. I guess that would be sorta nifty — a movie preview with lots of Penelope Cruz in it.
A long-lusted for intensity will only return to Capitals’ hockey when the puck drops around April 15; even the opening 20 minutes of that first playoff game will have a buzz and a much-anticipated nervousness unlike anything hockey has delivered us early this spring. It’s actually impressive that the Caps have answered the call of these glorified exhibition games with the success they have. Still, I want on-ice hatred and high stakes back in my hockey, and I have a few weeks more before I can plausibly expect that.