This nice long lull gives us time to think about the season thus far. It’s been a roller coaster ride, particularly in the sense that it’s mostly downhill and makes me feel kind of sick.
Things were looking up for a little bit, as the Capitals racked up three straight wins. But here’s the kicker: they were all within the division. It wasn’t until the last game that they played someone outside the Southleast, and, quelle surprise, they lost. In fact, the biggest reason hope isn’t entirely lost for this season is that the Southeast title is anybody’s game. Currently leading are the Carolina Hurricanes, with 17 points — tied with the Lightning. In 9th in the East are the Rangers, also with 17 points, and 10th are the Flyers, also with 17 points.
(Aside: it’s an unfortunate indictment of Bettman’s southern expansion gamble that the Southeast is so awful. As of right now, winning the Southeast is the same as barely making the playoffs, and ironically, the 6th seed team they would end up playing would have more points: Toronto with 20).
I considered the Rangers a kind of benchmark: not particularly good (they aren’t actually in the playoffs right now), but better than any given team in the Southeast. And the Caps fell short of it. Not terribly short, but unable to get over this small-yet-uncrestable wave. Some nights it seems like they’re the better men. And some nights they defeat themselves.
It took 92 points (in 82 games) to get into the Eastern conference playoffs last season (both Washington and Ottawa did so, for the 7th and 8th seed). If that holds, it would take 54 points (in 48 games) to make it into the playoffs this season. So far the Capitals have 11 in 15 games, meaning by hook or by crook they need to get 43 points in 33 games. Tonight they play the Devils, who lead the Atlantic (tied with the Penguins, beating them by dint of a better record). It’s another sort of “benchmark” game, in which we hope to learn if the Capitals that show up are capable of hanging with a playoff-bound team. Perhaps the three days of rest will have been an anodyne for this poor team. Perhaps the absence of Mike Green will be too much to overcome. Perhaps this is simply the season that tries fans’ souls.