Reinforcements can only help the bruised and battered for so long.
The Washington Capitals’ impressive unbeaten streak at home came to an abrupt halt Tuesday night with a 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers. The team was 9-0-1 at home going into Tuesday, with the only loss being in 4-3 shootout to the New Jersey Devils. A streak like this was bound to come to an end, but for it to come to the less than .500 Panthers is disappointing.
Injuries were the main reason for last night’s loss. Eight core players are sitting on the sidelines including Alexander Semin, Captain Chris Clark, Mike Green and Sergei Fedorov. Five players have been called up from Hershey to fill spots, including the Capitals first round pick of 2007, Karl Alzner, but can only fill spots, not replace players.
Four of the call-ups debuted against Atlanta and had solid starts. They are adding energy and youth to a broken team. With four of the eight injuries being to defensemen, the team has looked to Alzner and Sami Lepisto to fill those large voids.
“We held the Thrashers to 18 shots,” Boudreau said. “[It’s because] the puck is quickly moved out and I thought Karl [Alzner] and Sam [Lepisto] did a great job of that.”
Even with solid play, American Hockey League call-ups can’t replace what NHL veterans add to a team. The production of Semin, leadership of Fedorov and explosiveness of Green will never be replaced. As a result, the team has to be ready to take some tough losses.
Even through the injuries the team has been able to maintain the lead in the Southeast Division. They have taken many key victories including a 3-0 shutout win over the Montreal Canadians. However, the road ahead gets tougher for the Caps.
Before the start of the New Year, the team will play a strong Boston Bruins team at home as well as road games against Carolina, New York, and Philadelphia. If the team has any hopes of coming out of the month with a winning record they need to return to basic physical hockey.
Rookies won’t replace veterans and thus cannot be implemented into a system that thrives on experienced play. When playmakers are missing it is fundamentals and physicality that wins games. A team that clears the puck quickly and maintains the forecheck can keep an opposing team on its heels.
Goaltenders also need to be prepared to step up when they are called upon. With a stretched defensive core filled with rookies mistakes will be made, including in front of the net. Theodore has been on fire but still has not shown us he can be consistent.
There is a bit of good news though as Boudreau has rearranged some of his lines during practice in preparation for tonight’s game against the Islanders. While nothing is special, Fedorov centers the new top line, hinting at his return. Fedorov has the ability to play both offense as well as defense and will be a cherished return.
Times like these are character-defining moments for a team. It is what separates the Stanley Cup teams and the playoff contenders. Winning through adversity shows a team can think on its feet and adjust to whatever situation presents itself.
At this point, the Capitals hope Christmas comes early with the return of their missed superstars. We will really be able to see what this team is made of when it is completely healthy. They were rolling before players went down and the hope is that the team will get back on track soon. Until then, however, we are stuck in a waiting game.