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Top Shelf: Floundering Caps trying to find rock bottom

2:31 PM, Feb 8, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Washington Capitals have been going through a consistent decline since winning the Presidents' Trophy nearly three years ago, but who would ever imagine things would get this bad?

Take a gander at the NHL standings and you'll find the Capitals sitting 30th out of 30 teams with a dismal 2-8-1 record.

Even if this wasn't a shortened season and the team still played an 82-game schedule, posting just two victories over the first 11 contests would dampen any team's playoff chances. As it stands, 11 games is nearly a quarter of this year's 48-game regular season, so time is of the essence if Washington has any aspirations of making the playoffs for a sixth straight spring.

To date, the 11-game chunk of the campaign has produced precious few positives for the embattled Capitals and the team's rookie head coach, Adam Oates.

Even a recent upswing in production by Alex Ovechkin failed to move the dial in terms of wins and losses, as the superstar winger posted a goal and three assists during the club's current three-game losing streak. Ovechkin's personal numbers used to read as a barometer for Washington's success, but the team's troubles have become too big for the two-time Hart Trophy winner to solve on his own.

Washington's rise and fall during Ovechkin's time in D.C. has been fascinating to watch, provided you're not a Capitals fan, of course. In fact, a chart reflecting ing Washington's point totals during the Ovechkin era would look like a steep mountain peak surrounded by valleys on either side.

Ovechkin broke into the NHL in 2005-06 and the Caps missed the playoffs in his first two seasons, compiling just 70 points in each season. Washington's next five point totals read like this: 94, 108, 121 (Presidents' Trophy), 107 and 92. Even though the writing should have been on the wall after the steady decline of the previous two seasons, the depths that have been reached by the Caps in the early going in 2013 are simply astounding.

Not only does Washington have an NHL-low five points this season, the club's minus-16 goal differential is also the worst in the league. Three of the team's eight regulation losses have come by three-goal margins, but even more glaring is the fact the once-potent offense in D.C. has yet to score more than three goals in any game this season.

What really must be frustrating Oates, however, is the team's ability to waste good starts. Washington scored the game's first goal in each of its last three contests only to lose all three of them in regulation.

Perhaps, the low point came on Thursday evening when the Capitals played a strong first period in Pittsburgh to take a 1-0 lead into the locker room. However, the Penguins scored five unanswered goals in the second period to squash Washington's momentum en route to a 5-2 victory.

Ovechkin, the club's captain, was curt after the game and his analysis of the team's effort was nothing short of damning. He said the team "didn't play" in the second period. When asked how they responded in the third, Ovi shrugged, "No emotion, nothing."

Even though he's literally weeks into his NHL coaching career, Oates may wind up taking the fall for Washington if the situation keeps getting worse, but it's about time general manager George McPhee starts taking some of the heat.

McPhee has been running the franchise since 1997 and his tenure got off to a flying start with a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in the spring of '98. Since then, the Caps have won six division titles and the aforementioned Presidents' Trophy, but that success had more than a little to do with weak competition in the Southeast, a division that has improved around the Capitals in recent years.

The real failure for McPhee has been his inability to build around Ovechkin, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2004 draft. McPhee also has added talented guys like defenseman Mike Green and centerman Nicklas Backstrom via the draft, but unless recent first-rounders like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Filip Forsberg and Tom Wilson are bona-fide stars in the making, the GM's swings and misses during the Ovechkin era will far outweigh the hits.

Nobody questioned the weak drafts while Washington was torching its Southeast competition a few years ago, but now it's pretty clear how far the Caps have fallen behind.

As far as the team's struggles in 2013 go, McPhee isn't ready to pull the panic button yet, but maybe he should be.

"We're disappointed with the way things have started. It's not over," McPhee said recently. "Nothing that a couple of wins won't really help. But we're gonna make good decisions. We're not gonna do anything short-term. We're not going to blow anything up. We like the people here. Just got to be smart about how we do it."

The good news for the Caps is there is still only five points separating them from a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a deficit that could be fixed with a hot streak over the next few weeks.

The bad news is with the way Washington has played this season, it's hard to imagine them stringing together three strong periods, let alone a stretch of victories.

The Sports Network

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