BY MELISSA ZIELINSKI
One day they’re in first, one day they’re in second (in the Southeast Division). One day they’re in third, one day they’re in ninth (in the Eastern Conference). Only a single point separates the Washington Capitals and the Florida Panthers while only 10 points separate Washington from the basement of the division.
It seemed an unlikely scenario to start the season – the Caps being a “bubble team” – but now it is their scenario and it’s one they must come to terms with before it’s too late.
With unpredicted circumstances that have side swept the Caps, including a stretch of games with three of their most high-profile players - Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green - missing from the lineup, the Caps have struggled to find an identity. And while the light has begun to dim, the Caps are taking a U-turn by acknowledging and adjusting to their shortcomings as they head toward the end of the tunnel.
This acknowledgement was most recently seen on Tuesday night in a playoff-like atmosphere for the Caps against the division-rival Florida Panthers. In the game, the Caps took their own claws to the Cats with two early goals, established and maintained their physicality and, most importantly, secured two much-needed points.
“Guys were really ready. You could see the intensity in guys’ eyes,” said winger Jason Chimera. “Guys wanted the Florida game. It was a big win. We needed it and got it.”
Chimera snapped an 11-game scoreless streak along the way by dishing out one goal and one assist on a game-high eight shots in 12:51 of ice time.
“It was one important game for us,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Especially when we play against a team who’s behind us and we just want to make a huge gap between us and the different teams in our division.”
The possibility of a Laich-less team, after forward Brooks Laich’s early exit in a game against Boston two days prior, also forced other players to rise to the occasion.
One of those players, Joel Ward, did exactly that.
“He moved up lines and he answered the bell,” coach Dale Hunter said. “I thought it was his best game that I’ve seen here. He played hard, took the body, cycled well and created scoring chances.”
Now that they’ve seen what Ward can do, Hunter is intrigued to see what he can get out of other players in their next division contest – tonight against the Winnipeg Jets, who trail the Caps by just four points (56). One move in particular was to replace veteran Mike Knuble in the lineup in favor of Jay Beagle.
“I want to see lots of speed, lots of hitting in the fourth line role there,” said coach Hunter. “Just to be an energy guy so when you play your 10-12 minutes it’s as hard as you can be.”
If Washington can get a positive return from Beagle as it did Ward, they’ll be one step closer to achieving their new identity. They must establish it soon though because flip-flopping in the ranks is a characteristic that the team knows won’t suffice.