Fading Washington Capitals already talking about 'must-win' games
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) -- Even if Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals have earned a reputation for quick exits, at least they've been making the playoffs year after year. That's not a given this time.
And the team is well aware of it: Every time players set foot in the practice facility, they come face to face with a display showing where Washington stands. On Thursday, the Capitals had 70 points, good enough only for 11th place in the 16-team Eastern Conference. The top eight teams qualify for the postseason.
"We've got a board in our dressing room here that says the standings. You walk by it six, seven times a day," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "So there's no way to be immune to what's going on."
Washington hasn't missed the playoffs since the 2006-07 season, although it's never been past the second round in that span.
At the moment, the fading Capitals have won only one of their last six games heading into Friday night against the visiting Vancouver Canucks, who are 10th in the West.
"The `desperate' level," Brouwer said, "is getting up there."
Washington has 15 games left in the regular season. It's not a particularly easy schedule, either, with 10 games against teams currently in playoff position, including a daunting March 18-22 road trip to Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.
"Obviously, we're very concerned," coach Adam Oates said. "But the one good thing about hockey is tomorrow's another game and you can't get too far ahead or dwell too much on it, because you've got to play tomorrow. It's a `must win' tomorrow."
There have been various problems lately, including poor passing and puck possession, leading to turnovers and a lack of shots on goal.
Also glaring: Ovechkin's sudden lack of scoring.
The three-time NHL MVP and team captain leads the league with 44 goals, but he has been held without a point in each of the last four games, matching his worst drought this season.
So what's it going to take to get things turned in the right direction before it's too late?
"It can be one big hit," said Ovechkin, who's been known to dole those out. "Or it can be one good play and everybody (wakes) up and everybody (plays) much better."
In a bid to help the playoff push, general manager George McPhee added goalie Jaroslav Halak and left wing Dustin Penner in separate deals at the trade deadline this month, then finally signed 2010 first-round draft pick Evgeny Kuznetsov. But there hasn't been a payoff yet.
Penner was thought to be destined for the top forward line, alongside Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom. But Oates said Thursday, "I don't think he matches well with them." Asked to elaborate, Oates replied: "He's not the fastest guy in the world. He's a puck-possession, battle-along-the-wall guy, and I think (Ovechkin and Backstrom) need a quicker guy."
Halak, meanwhile, has made three consecutive starts over Braden Holtby. Oates wouldn't say who would be in net Friday.
Holtby said all the right things Thursday, though - about Halak "giving us a chance to win, whenever he plays"; about how "I want to learn from" Halak; about how there's no rivalry between the pair.
Holtby also gave a frank assessment about what Washington needs to do now.
"Everyone knows," Holtby said, "that we have to have at least 10 wins, probably, in these last 15 - or more - to have a chance."
Notes: D Dmitry Orlov signed a $4 million, two-year contract extension. "Good for him," Ovechkin said, "and good for us." Orlov was suspended by the NHL for two games this month after launching into an opponent and drawing a major penalty that helped the Flyers rally for a 5-4 overtime victory. ... C Brooks Laich, who missed two of the last four games with a groin injury, saw a doctor and will be monitored day by day, according to Oates. It's possible Laich will play Friday. ... C Mikhail Grabovski skated before Thursday's practice as he deals with a left ankle injury. "Until he can practice with us, I think he's a ways away," Oates said.
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