The Washington Capitals are a hard team to define.
For much of the season, the Capitals have toyed with the emotions of their fans. After an impressive off-season haul that including a top-tier goaltender, many fans were excited that this could finally be the year, and could not complain. Except for those who wanted Michal Neuvirth to be the starter because they have his jersey, and everything.
Washington got off to a flying start, crushing Philadelpha and Detroit as part of a seven-game winning streak to start the season. They were what everyone expected them to be, cruising through the regular season. It seemed as though the biggest problem the Caps would have is how to properly rest Tomas Vokoun for the playoffs.
Then, something happened. What exactly happened is up for debate, but the results are not: since that seven-game winning streak ended in Edmonton, the Capitals are under .500 by a healthy margin and have won only seven games on the road. They fired a veteran, reliable coach, deciding to replace him with a franchise icon who had never coached a day of professional hockey in his life before he was hired.
Even more recently, the Capitals's struggles have been even more alarming. After a soft late December schedule allowed them to pick up some points, the Capitals have lost to some of the premier teams in the NHL, and been shut out by some of the worst clubs in the league. For the first time in over four years, the Capitals are struggling to make the playoffs. With a murderous March schedule that is sure to expose their road weakness profoundly, missing them is a very real possibility.
With an already sizably large void at center, the Capitals are missing their best center and best player, Nicklas Backstrom. There is no indication that he will be back on the ice skating, let along playing, at any point in the foreseeable future. Mike Green is out with a sports hernia, and though he could be back soon, his level of effectiveness after missing all but eight and a third games this season is a large question mark. Alex Ovechkin is a shell of his former self.
This past Sunday, when Brooks Laich went down with what looked like a very bad knee injury, I, like many, assumed that the season was over. Even if the Capitals were by some miracle able to make the playoffs without Laich in the lineup, there was no chance that they could bring it all home.
But somehow, Laich has been able to stay in the lineup, though he saw half of his normal ice time in last night's game with the Panthers. That was a game described by Dale Hunter as a "playoff game," a game in which the Capitals absolutely had to win.
Surprisingly enough, win it they did. They won it 4-0, in fact, crushing the team that poses the biggest roadblock between them and the playoffs. Coupled with a vintage performance from Tomas Vokoun, Alex Ovechkin had his best game since returning from his suspension, and the Capitals romped. Washington is back in first place in the Southeast Division, though the Panthers have played one fewer game.
Once again, there is hope among many.
There was an inherent energy, a life inside Verizon Center that had I had not seen in a long time, on Tuesday night. It came, undoubtedly, from the fan base knowing how important a game it was and how good it must have felt for them to watch their team come up big in such a big game. I could feel it watching on television. It must have been exceptional to witness in person.
But this team still has weaknesses, ones that no amount of hope or optimism or wins over mediocre hockey teams can fix. Even with their win last night, the Capitals relied on Vokoun to keep them in the game early with some magnificent saves, and were out-shot by a large margin. Most of their wins over the last two months have come from outstanding performances in goal, not great team play. You can't rely solely on goaltending to win you anything of substance.
Yes, we are all happy that the Capitals won last night over the then leader of their Division. Rainbows. Butterflies. Pots of gold.
The Capitals have to get much better over the last two months of the season. This we all know, and this we all should make peace with. This solves no problems. It is reality.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday, it felt different. The energy and the life was real, and it felt like it was 2008 again. The Capitals are mentally worn down, they are injured, and they are fighting the odds to meet their massive expectations. It will take a miracle of them win the Stanley Cup this year. That tells you enough about their chances.
But from the cellar of Verizon Center after the game, Journey's classic rang from the Washington dressing room.
"Don't stop believin', hold on to that feelin'..."
The Washington Capitals are down. No doubt about that.
But are they out?
Not a chance.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.