Well fellow Caps fans our team is now the owner of a 7-7-0 record after a relatively slow start. Speaking of slow starts - what is it with those things and the Capitals? but more on that later. During an interview earlier this season, Martin Erat basically said it the right way - a point earned in October and November is as important in April as any points earned at the end of the season.
With realignment, and the incorporation of wild cards into the NHL playoffs, those early season points might be even more important. However, the easiest way to make sure that all doesn't matter is to not be a bubble team. How does one do that in the NHL for 2014 and beyond? Well it's still an 82 game regular season, and in my opinion, the teams that make the playoffs will all need to have 94+ points. Projecting the Eastern Conference "Wild Cards" right now we see the teams in those two spots as Boston and Montreal each with 16 points, though Boston has a 0.615 record while Montreal has a 0.533 record. In fact, the current projected playoff team with the "worst" record in the Eastern Conference is the Capitals with their 0.500 record. Why do I go through all that? Simply to support this conclusion - Q: what's it going to take to make sure your team makes the playoffs this season; A: play 0.600+ hockey over the course of the entire season and just like prior 82 game seasons that equals 98+ points. Less than 98 points and more than 87 points and you're a "bubble team." The good news for the league and hockey fans all over, except those of the one or two bubble teams "on the back side" of the wild card bubble is that as you can see looking at the current standings is the wild card format should improve the caliber of the teams that make the playoffs with those wild card slots compared to the prior 7th and 8th seeds in the earlier format. At least I think it will.
So what does that mean to our Capitals and the next two months? Well interestingly, the Metropolitan Division as a whole has gotten off to a slow start and the Caps 0.500 performance during this first 17% of the season. So the Capitals are now in the thick of things in the Division as well as the conference. Additionally over the past ten games including the just concluded 5 game road trip, the Caps have played 0.600 hockey. In the Division, the Penguins are playing 0.700 hockey over their last ten games and 0.733 over their first 15 games this season. Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, Atlantic Division teams: Tampa Bay, Toronto, Detroit, Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Florida, and Buffalo are in a much different state after the first fifth of the season than here in the Metropolitan Division, at least in my view. Unless something changes drastically there Florida and Buffalo are or should already be in "rebuild" mode and Ottawa is getting close to that point as well. Ottawa's performance over their next ten games will dictate whether they claw their way up to where the Canadiens currently are or slip down to the level that the Panthers, Sabres and for that matter the Flyers currently are at will be telling. Further the Senators last ten game record of 3-6-1 (0.350) is not looking too good. So to me when I look at the Atlantic Division I see five teams fighting for the three Division Playoff spots and the bottom of those five also being in the battle for both Wild Card spots.
In the Metropolitan Division, right now, I see Pittsburgh winning the Division unless something drastic changes. They've started the season playing 0.700+ hockey and are continuing to do so. Even if they drop to 0.650 or even 0.600 for the rest of the season, they will clearly continue to be the team to beat in the Met Division. Additionally, as has been noted, those 22 points the Pen's have already won will still be worth 22 points at the end of the season and right now they give the Penguins a 7 point lead over the second place team in the division. So then you have the next six teams in the division: Islanders, Capitals, Rangers, Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and Devils all separated by just five points. What I see here is that over the next two months, during which the Caps play twenty eight (28) games (thanks to the schedule compression to accommodate the Olympic Break) is that at least one but not more than two of those teams will play 0.400 hockey and put themselves into a tough spot and make it almost impossible to make the playoffs. That means there will then be four teams fighting for the remaining two divisional spots as well as the last Wild Card spot.
To make sure they are one of those four teams that have record that challenges the Penguins for the division championship, the Caps really need to play 0.600+ hockey though November and December. The good news is so far the Caps are 2-0-0 in November; and they did that by winning a back to back at the end of a 5 game road trip. Further positives, is that after a relatively slow start both Capitals Goaltenders have looked strong over the past ten games while they've played 0.600 hockey. Further over their past ten games the Caps have played pretty consistent and strong hockey against a variety of teams that played a variety of styles. My one worry is their slow start in games of late and the way those slow starts have resulted in paltry numbers of shots on goal and even fewer scoring chances during the first periods of their games. The Caps just need to up their energy level and aggressiveness in the first period of games, at least I think they do, to even have a chance of playing 0.650 to 0.700 hockey over any extended period. That said if the Caps play 0.600+ the rest of the way, the Capitals will have 95-96 points at the end of the season. Ninety six points is NOT 98+ so to get and stay off the bubbly the Caps need to play 0.625+ through November and December - that would be thirty five (35) more points and mean they start 2014 with 49+ points. If they do that they will be part of the "Class" of the Eastern Conference.
Can the Capitals do it? I'm hopeful they can - I think they have the talent across the board to do it and I like the way the coaching staff is driving the team to play. That said, you have to play the games on the ice. It also means the Caps need to stay healthy. Another wild card this season, pun intended, is the Olympic break, which sort of means we play two seasons this year. The Olympic break is just a lot longer than the All-Star break and changes how the season will "flow".
I'm going to start looking at re-energizing this blog/my blog again now and that will mean looking closer at specific issues and musings as pertain to Hockey and the Capitals in particular. I don't really know if I'll be able to find the time - I'm pretty busy today but I figured I'd start by looking at the overall "big picture" as regards the season outlook for the Caps. Now next up for the Capitals on Tuesday will be a test against the Islanders at the end of Tuesday evening's contest the Caps will either be: a) 1 point ahead of the Islanders; b) tied with them at 16 points a piece; or c) three points behind them. If you're a Caps fan like me you're rooting for "a)". That will also mean the Caps just might get those 35+ points between 11/1 and 12/31/2013 I mentioned.