Originally written on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 11/12/14

Washington’s perfect start through seven games seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? When Dale Hunter took over for Bruce Boudreau, it was thought that he would give the Capitals a spark. But as one writer points out, the pre-season Cup contenders are actually going in reverse, and are in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.

Following back-to-back losses coming out of the All-Star break, Hunter’s squad finds themselves in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. It’s the lowest they’ve been in the standings this late in the season since the 2007-08 campaign. Who would have predicted in September that the Caps would be looking up at Senators and Panthers (albeit improved)? Yet, that’s the exact position they still in here on February 2nd.

There are many reasons for the Capitals’ inconsistency, downfall – whatever you want you to call it.

Nicklas Backstrom being out of the lineup for a month now obviously isn’t helping matters. Though he doesn’t have the same fanfare as Alex Ovechkin, he is arguably the most important offensive player in Washington. As for their most important defenseman? He, Mike Green, has only played in 10 games this season (the team is 9-1-0 with him in the lineup).

Speaking of Ovechkin, the superstar is on pace for career-low totals (33 goals, 64 points), leading some to believe that his best days could be behind him and that the rest of the NHL has finally figured him out. Will we ever see that flashy 50-goal scorer again? Maybe for a handful of games, but what about on a consistent basis in Hunter’s system?

Ovechkin hasn’t been the same prolific offensive presence since the 2010 playoff debacle:
Additionally, when GM George McPhee signed Tomas Vokoun to a bargain deal of $1.5 million in the summer, the Caps were supposed to have a top goaltending duo. Vokoun and his backup, Michal Neuvirth, have failed to live up to that billing by posting a 2.86 goals-against average thus far.

To make matters worse, this team can’t seem to string together any wins. When Boudreau was canned, the Caps were 12-9-1. Since Hunter took over, they are 14-11-3. Not much difference, as you can see. Writer Neil Greenberg points out in this ESPN.com Insider analysis piece from Tuesday, Hunter’s coaching style is hurting the Caps.
Since taking over, Hunter’s team has been outshot and outchanced in 20 of its 26 contests and is seeing just 44 percent of all shots go in its favor. That is an alarmingly low number and would be one of the worst for any team since the lockout ended if it holds.

Of the top 25 worst shot percentages (shots for, as a percentage of all shots) since the beginning of the 2005-06 season, 20 didn’t qualify for the playoffs, and four of the five that did were bounced in the first round. Only the Montreal Canadiens (2009-10) had playoff success, making it to the conference finals, where they lost to the Flyers.
Greenberg went on to mention that the offense has dwindled considerably, going from a 3.1 goals per game under Boudreau this season, to 2.5 under Hunter. That doesn’t exactly play to the skill-set that McPhee has put together over time with this Capitals team.

The Capitals were at their best when they were flying up and down the ice, scoring three-to-four goals a night, annihilating teams on other nights. Sure, it didn’t result in postseason success, but now they are a shell of what they were two years ago. This isn’t a team built to win on grit and defense. They are built to win with offense, which shows why the contrasting style between Hunter and his club’s personnel isn’t working.

With 32 games remaining, the Caps must find a way to regain some consistency. But if it’s taken them this long to try to snap out of this funk, what makes you believe that they eventually will?

Since winning their first seven games of the season, the Caps are 19-20-4. They have eight road wins on the season, tied for the second-fewest in the Eastern Conference. To pour fuel on the fire, their road schedule the rest of the way is littered with difficult games. Meanwhile, Florida has the easiest remaining schedule in the league, which complicates Washington’s chances to win their fifth straight Southeast Division title.

It’s hard to imagine a postseason without Ovechkin’s Capitals. If they continue at this current pace, however, that may become a reality. When you think back to the pre-season, it would be a gigantic fall for a team that had the ‘Stanley Cup or bust’ label attached to them just a short few months ago.

The thing that is so puzzling is that this same Capitals team started 7-0, looking every bit the Cup contender that hockey pundits expected them to be.

That seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

Photo credit: Getty Images
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