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Who Saw This Coming?

About a week ago, I was close to imposing a ban on the word "playoffs" from any and all copy regarding the Capitals until next season. They had lost six straight, and Tampa Bay, Dallas, Buffalo and Anaheim awaited.

It's a good thing I didn't. Instead of crumbling, Olie Kolzig and his teammates have elevated their game. They've won three in a row and are playing their best hockey of the season.

Is this rebuilding club turning the corner sooner than anyone expected? Or is this an illusion?

Tonight's performance against an equally hot Senators squad will go a long way toward helping me decide.

The Caps catch another scheduling break--the Sens beat the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum less than 24 hours ago. And, as well all know, winning on back-to-back nights is tough, even for teams as deep and talented as the Sens, who have won four straight.

And, according to the Ottawa Sun, the Senators will likely be without Daniel Alfredsson, who left last night's game with a lower body injury.

So which is it? A serious playoff push or fool's gold?

By Tarik El-Bashir  |  December 6, 2006; 12:57 PM ET
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Next: Heward, Playoff Spot Getting Close


A relatively young team (or at least a team with many key guys in the beginnings of their careers and expected to develop), the Caps have, this year so far, done what I think everyone has hoped for - shown modest improvement in their record.

Some of those key guys are inconsistent and that's related to lack of experience. I would imagine the highs and lows are more strongly felt when you're in your first year or two of regular NHL time. So mistakes can pile on top of each other just like confidence can add that extra burst of speed, crispness in passing, quicker release, or sharper decision making.

I think they'll gave a couple more multiple game winning streaks and losing streaks during this season (seemingly regardless of the caiber of opposition) and, when we turn the calendar to April, I bet we'll be in a multi-horse race for 8th place.

Posted by: pepper | December 6, 2006 1:41 PM | Report abuse

The Caps will finish in the 10th place in the eastern conference.

You can bank money on that.

Next year, they'll win the division. Start banking money on that.

*Tarik, you heard it here first.

Posted by: 10thplace | December 6, 2006 1:48 PM | Report abuse

I believe they will either be in the playoffs (8th) or out (9th-15th) by a few points. Pepper's analyisis is dead on.

Posted by: A Hardwick | December 6, 2006 2:20 PM | Report abuse

While they have a shot at winning tonight I do think the Caps will have 2 or 3 more 6 straight losses in a row. If they had picked up some of those points in Shoot Outs earlier in the year I would give them a better chance of it since they can keep games close.

I do think if Backstrom had come over they would be very close to making the playoffs.

Once they add some more defense to the team and if Kolzig can stay "young" then they have a bright future. If they can pull off a trade to add some defense, without giving up NHL roster forwards, then maybe they could pull off a run.

Posted by: | December 6, 2006 2:44 PM | Report abuse

i agree, i think the key word there is push and how much of one the caps can make. obviously they need the production they have been getting of late from guys like semin and zednik to even have a chance. the key is going to be how they play in the division, while they have beaten 2 pretty good teams lately, i'll be interested to see how they play when it comes to carolina and atlanta

Posted by: Mike P | December 6, 2006 2:47 PM | Report abuse

I think I'm with the majority here in seeing a fight-for-8th-place finish.

I like what I'm seeing with the Caps, but I think they need this season to gel together, maybe have McPhee tweak a few things, before they're seriously contending for playoff positioning, let alone good positioning.

I am glad to see Zednik is doing better. I was quite worried after that Buffalo game and a little puzzled not to see more coverage about it. I was afraid he had major leg issues. Unfair that just as his scoring seemed to pick up he got injured... but c'est la vie.

Posted by: Capsfan6 | December 6, 2006 2:49 PM | Report abuse

I think it's simply that we play extremely hard and if a more talented team doesn't bring their 'A' game, we can outwork them.
Almost like old times.

I think the Toronto game has been the only one where the Caps clearly weren't ready to play.

Posted by: tallbear | December 6, 2006 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Caps will just make (or just miss) the playoffs. Realistically, the Caps don't have the enough talent on defense. Not a matter of maturity or experience. Players who would be permanent AHL'ers for most teams, are one or two year Caps players until other talent is available.

Posted by: Dezlboy | December 6, 2006 3:39 PM | Report abuse

I am a believer in the rebuilding plan in place. I do believe it is going a bit faster than expected, but to have a good chance to make the playoffs as a #7 or #8 seed, they need to make a trade for defense. Otherwise, close but no cigar. I am also excited to see Backstrom next year. That addition will really push them to the higher level.

Posted by: CT Caps Fan | December 6, 2006 3:39 PM | Report abuse

I think the Caps are turning the corner-albeit slowly. They will probably miss the playoffs again, but next year they will be in if they continue this climb. The one thing I am worried about is that the organization will be strong just at the time that their old nemesis the Penguins will be playoff-contenders. You KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS....

Posted by: Dave | December 6, 2006 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Dave, but by then, the Pens will be in Ontario.


Posted by: Rage | December 6, 2006 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Unmaliciously, I'm wondering if the nearly-imposed ban of the 'p' word says more about the team or the analytical abilities of the media in general (and not anyone in specific).

So far this team has done the exact opposite of what's it's been expected to do - high hopes in 03-04, poor result. Lockout, then worst team in the league, maybe ever, and the team beats several teams who boast big-name free agent signings (see: Gonchar, Sergei). Supposed to show slight improvement this year, and are over .500.

Skepticism once is understandable. However, at some point, the media is going to have to stop with the skepticism. The Caps aren't in the playoffs by any stretch, and I'm sure reporters can't wait to write of their collapse, but for now, this is a good hockey team, and they've shown it.

Posted by: Empty Maybe | December 6, 2006 5:16 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the multiple observations about the need for help on defense. During the Canadiens-Leafs game this past weekend, the CBC guys were commenting that Souray, Markov and Rivet were unrestricted free agents after this season, and Bob Gainey does not expect to be able to keep them all. Apropos of nothing, Alex Ovechkin has been quoted as saying that Markov would be a great addition to the Caps. All this having been said, Tarik, is there any hint that we might see a deal for defense during the season? Otherwise, I also think the Caps fall into the "close but no cigar" camp -- this year.

Posted by: Fred | December 6, 2006 6:41 PM | Report abuse

I have to say that I don't doubt this defense as mush as everybody else seems to. I was at the Ottawa game Wed. night, and I was thouroghly impressed by the Caps defensive performance. They were playing a fairly strong team, and they didn't give up many real scoring chances. I trust in McPhee when he says that these guys just need to learn the league. I think all they needed was one or two experienced defensemen, and they got that in the off season. Let 'em play, they looked darn good tonight, and I predict another strong start on friday against the Ducks!

Posted by: Jed J | December 7, 2006 12:16 AM | Report abuse

I think the playoffs might be a bit hard for us. Bottom line, our division is very strong. However, all I know for sure is it has been great fun watching this team

Posted by: Melissa | December 7, 2006 7:28 AM | Report abuse

To Rage: Good point. I myself would not be heartbroken if the Pens move to Ontario, or Kansas City, and out ou our coference.

With regards to changes in personnel, I also believe that Ted and George are doing a great job, and they should play the young guys we have here. But if it looks like we might make the playoffs, I don't see what's wrong with acquiring one more (relavtively cheap) #4 or #5 type defenseman, ala a Ben Clymer or John Erksine. We all know how important depth on defense is when injuries occurr.

Posted by: Dave | December 7, 2006 8:38 AM | Report abuse

I say we'll make the playoffs. I also have completely bought in to GMGM's master plan (build thru the draft). In fact, I hope we DON'T trade away any of the young talent. Vets are way overrated in the new NHL. Plus, we had a vet on D - one that was highly coveted by many playoff bound teams - and now he's bouncing around the league (Brendan Witt, anyone?) Also, my secret hope is that Nicklas Backstrom joins the team THIS season. His Swedish team, Brynas, finishes their season in February. We should bring him over for our final push to make the playoffs. One last comment (while I'm still wishfully thinking): I'd always hoped that with Chris Bourque in our organization, his dad might join our coaching staff. Having Ray Bourque show our young D the ropes - now THAT would improve our defense.

Posted by: tokyo fan | December 7, 2006 8:48 AM | Report abuse

I dont think Backstrom can come over this season (even after the SEL season is over) due to a clause in the CBA (pertaining to signing players from a European league after the season has started). He would need to pass thru waivers in order to play for the Caps this season, and obviously they wouldnt risk such a move.

Posted by: capsdude | December 7, 2006 9:28 AM | Report abuse

I agree that they'll finish somewhere between 7th and 11th in the conference and, barring any unforseen screw-ups or injuries, contend for the division next year.

I really like this team. Hanlon has them working hard and playing with a great attitude. They've got a good young nucleus to build on and the future looks bright.

As with the Nationals, I don't want to see them overspend just to get slightly better in the short run. I'd rather see the Caps miss the playoffs this year and continue to build for the future than to splash out a lot of money or trade away prospects at the trade deadline just to move from, for example, 10th to 8th.

Posted by: Reed | December 7, 2006 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Tarik - OK, now that they have knocked off Ottawa what say you?!?!?!?! :)

Posted by: kthhken | December 7, 2006 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I've got to say the defense has improved much faster than I though possible. And the biggest problem they seemed to have had,getting out of their own zone, seems to be solved. The D is no longer just throwing the puck along the boards and hoping it crosses the blue line. Now the forwards are cutting into the middle of the ice looking for the first pass. The difference has been remarkable. I'm wondering if Hanlon, early in the season, didn't trust the young D to make the more dangerous pass and they were under orders to go up the boards. Now he appears to be letting them go the easier route. Tarik, have you noticed that or am I imagining it?

Posted by: rincrt | December 7, 2006 4:51 PM | Report abuse

These boots were made for walking; the Marquis de Sade don't make no boots like these.

Fool's gold we ain't. Pass the Kool-Aid! and bring on them Ducks...

Posted by: Oh Yeah | December 7, 2006 6:45 PM | Report abuse

I'm impressed. I'll be more impressed when they win -- and don't yield 37 shots.

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