April 10 vs. Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (36-30-13)
Carolina Hurricanes (34-34-11)
Washington closes out the road portion of its 2013-14 regular season schedule with a Thursday night visit to Raleigh. The Caps’ contest against Carolina is also the last of their 30 games against Metropolitan Division opponents.
The Capitals were finally, officially and mathematically eliminated from contention for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs by virtue of Wednesday night’s results involving the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings. Those two teams nailed down the final two Eastern Conference wild card berths on Wednesday, leaving the Capitals to mull the ruins of their most disappointing and underachieving regular season performance in a decade.
The Caps have three games remaining in the season, and they’ll be played in a mercifully swift span of three and a half days. Once those three meaningless games are in the books, ownership will begin poking through the rubble and the ruins of an underwhelming campaign, and there will almost certainly be changes in the offing.
Washington is 1-2-1 against the Hurricanes this season, with that only victory coming here in Raleigh on the Caps’ previous visit to town on Dec. 20. That 4-2 win over the Canes just before Christmas left the Caps with an impressive 7-2-1 mark in their previous 10 games.
But the wheels were about to come off the cart.
Goaltender Michal Neuvirth returned from injured reserve to active duty just ahead of that game in Carolina, but rather than return AHL call-up Philipp Grubauer to the Hershey Bears, the Caps opted to go with three goaltenders: Neuvirth, Grubauer and Braden Holtby. That’s a gambit that never works in the NHL, and it didn’t work this time, either. The Caps came home from Carolina and dropped their next two games on home ice, squandering two-goal leads in both contests.
Washington defeated the New York Rangers at Verizon Center on Dec. 27, and it woke up the next day in second place in the Metropolitan Division, six points ahead of its nearest pursuer.
That was as good as it got for the 2013-14 Capitals.
The Caps won only four of their next 17 games (4-8-5) and they dropped seven straight in January. Even worse, the Capitals went more than a month between victories over their fellow Metropolitan Division foes, going 0-6-1 within the division and tumbling down the standings and outside of the playoff chase in the process.
There were flickers of hope when Washington followed that seven-game January skid with another 7-2-1 stretch that put them right on the cusp of a playoff berth in the standings. The Caps were 10 minutes away from their first five-game winning streak of the season on March 2 against the Flyers at Verizon Center, but Washington hairballed another two-goal lead in the third period of that game and suffered through a subsequent six-game hangover (1-4-1) that left it in dire straits by mid-March.
With the season hanging in the balance at that point, Washington pieced together another brief stretch of strong hockey, culminating with its first win in San Jose in more than two decades. When the Caps returned from California on March 23 with an impressive 2-0-1 mark for their troubles, they were tied for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, and they owned a 4-0-1 mark in their previous five games.
Once again, the Caps frittered away a two-goal third-period lead in a March 25 home game against Los Angeles, the team’s first game back from its trip out west. And once again, there were lingering hangover consequences from coughing up that two-goal lead in that key game. The damaging defeat to the Kings festered into a five-game skid at the worst possible time of the season, and there simply weren’t enough days left on the calendar with which to right the listing ship.
For the first time since 2007, the Caps will be playing out the string of the season’s final games. Expectations were higher this season than they were in ’07, and Washington can look back at a litany of points left on the table right from opening night in Chicago if it cares to pinpoint where things first started to falter.
Carolina has also been eliminated from contention for a playoff berth. This is the fifth straight season in which the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs; they advanced to the Eastern Conference final in their most recent Stanley Cup playoff appearance, back in 2009.
The Hurricanes were among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference when the calendar turned to February, but Carolina has been unable to string together more than two wins in a row since then. The Canes have won only nine of 25 games (9-14-2) since, tumbling to also-ran status in the Metropolitan Division and in the Eastern Conference standings.
“It is disappointing,” says Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller of his team’s campaign. “I think we’re on the right track. We’ve looked at some different areas that I think we’ve really improved on and I think we’re [heading] in the right direction. If we can keep going in the right direction, the results will change and we will be in a different position. That’s what we’ve got to focus on.”
Carolina appears to be heading in a different direction in goal. The Canes signed Anton Khudobin as an unrestricted free agent last summer, and he seems to have wrested Carolina’s No. 1 netminding position away from longtime franchise goaltender Cam Ward.
For the better part of the last month, Khudobin has had three starts to every one for Ward. Khudobin has also outperformed the former Conn Smythe Trophy winning incumbent Ward this season. Khudobin’s .931 save pct. is second in the NHL, and that figure as well as his 2.14 GAA would set single-season franchise marks.
Ward’s GAA has risen for the third straight season; his 3.14 mark this season is his worst since he was an NHL freshman in 2005-06. His .896 save pct. is also his worst mark since 2005-06.
After signing a one-year deal at a very reasonable rate of $800,000 for the 2013-14 season, Khudobin recently agreed to a two-year extension with the Hurricanes. The salary cap hit on that pact is $2.25 million per season, still a great value.
The 30-year-old Ward has two more seasons remaining on a long-term deal that carries an annual cap hit of $6.3 million.
Carolina started the month of April with consecutive 4-1 victories over Pittsburgh and Dallas, respectively. The Canes have dropped two straight since, scoring but a single goal in each of those setbacks.
“We’re going to push right to the end and play the game the right way and compete the right way,” says Muller. “It’s our responsibility to do that. We’re not letting up on things that we’ve talked about since day one and we expect to play the same way until the end.”