By Steve Silverman
The Washington Capitals are still in first place in the Metropolitan Division, but their lead is down to one point over the Pittsburgh Penguins and two over the Philadelphia Flyers as of Wednesday morning.
The Capitals are not the team they were in either of the last two years when they were awarded the Presidents Trophy in back-to-back years.
The Caps have faced nothing but disappointment in the playoffs in losing consecutive second-round playoff series to the Penguins each of the last two years.
They're loaded with questions marks with the playoffs around the corner and though they have dominated opponents in previous years, that has not been the case this year with a plus-six goal differential in 66 games. Compare that to 2015-16 when they were plus-59 in that category, and plus-81 last year.
The biggest reason for this may be the play of goalie Braden Holtby, who has fallen on hard times this year. He is still winning games with a 29-15-4 record, but he has a 3.03 goals-against average, a .907 save percentage and he has not has had a shutout this season. Holtby has shown off his immense talent in shootouts, as he has allowed just one goal in nine breakaway shots.
"He hasn't had a real good stretch," said head coach Barry Trotz. "He's going to work with our goaltending coaches and get his game in order. He's won a lot of games for us. He's an elite goaltender in this league. Everybody goes through some dry spells and he's having one right now really."
Backup goalie Philipp Grubauer may be a better alternative than Holtby in the short term. Grubauer has a .923 save percentage, and he has a big advantage high-danger saves. Grubauer has a save percentage of .834 of the dangerous shots he faces, while Holtby's percentage against those shots is just 75.6 percent, according to Corsica.hockey.
We are not suggesting that Grubauer will help the Caps break their long-standing playoff issues, but he may just be able to come up with a couple of key regular-season wins that might otherwise slip away. This could help the Caps maintain their home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs and help the overall confidence level of head coach Barry Trotz's perplexing team.
Seattle getting closer and closer
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made a bit of a public tour last week prior to the NHL's Stadium Series game between the Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Bettman was trying drum up interest and legitimacy in the outdoor game, and at least the NHL got it right by finding a unique location for this game. Now that the NHL has been to Annapolis, will Army get a chance to host a game in West Point, New York, or the Air Force get an opportunity in Colorado?
As Bettman made the rounds, many of the questions had to do with the potential addition of the NHL's 32nd team.
That expansion will almost certainly happen, and you can be sure that city will be Seattle. Bettman would not give any official approval and he said the application has not been "rubber-stamped," but it basically has been.
The success of the Vegas Golden Knights has to make the Seattle potential owners ready and willing to pay an exorbitant $650 million to join the league. The Golden Knights have a nine-point bulge on the Anaheim Ducks in the Pacific Division, but the expansion team is going through its first questionable period of the season.
After dropping a 4-1 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday night, the Jackets are 1-3-1 in their last five games. Whether this is part of a downturn or not is still to be determined, but it seems that the league is starting to figure out how to get the best of the Golden Knights.
Even if Vegas goes into a legitimate slump, that will not discourage the potential Seattle owners, led by Hollywood mogul Jerry Bruckheimer. All systems are going full-speed ahead.
Bruins hope the timing is right for injury issues
Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins is out with a foot injury, and while the initial estimate was that he would be out two weeks before returning, there are no guarantees he will be back by March 13 or 14.
Rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy left Saturday's game against the Montreal Canadiens midway through his first shift and did not return. The Bruins announced Tuesday he will be out a month with a sprained knee (MCL).
The Bruins are hoping that both estimates are correct. They have won four games in a row and have opened some daylight between themselves and the Toronto Maple Leafs – five points – and they also have four games in hand on Toronto.
They have their sights set on the Tampa Bay Lightning. They trail Tampa Bay by six points, but they have three games in hand on the Lightning and they also have three games remaining with the first-place team.
Bruce Cassidy would love to see his team make it to the top spot, but the key is to have a healthy team at the start of the playoffs.
They would have no shot to win the Stanley Cup without Bergeron and McAvoy, and if either one of those injury situations lingers, a short playoff season may be the result.
The Bruins can survive the short-term without both of these players because of their depth, but Zdeno Chara struggled badly against the Detroit Red Wings without McAvoy Tuesday night. Maybe it was just a bad game, but the soon-to-be 41-year-old Chara looked old, slow and almost inept.
He may need the youth and speed of McAvoy more than the rookie needs Chara's strength and experience at this point.
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