The Caps want to start tuning up for the playoffs. After grinding out an 4-3 overtime victory against the Blue Jackets on Thursday at Verizon Center, they have 101 points, eight points more than the Lightning in the division with four to play (six for Tampa).
Washington trails the Flyers by a point for the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference and home ice through to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Presidents’ Cup is out of reach as the Canucks have it all but mathematically wrapped up. So, the Caps are more or less looking at a No. 2 seed heading into the playoffs with a possible No. 1 and it is time to fine tune the program so as to vanquish the ghosts of playoffs past.
Or so you would think.
Bob McKenzie, one of the elite reporters in all of hockey, tweeted during the Caps game on Thursday that defenseman Dennis Wideman was in the hospital with a hematoma on his leg that developed after an awkward hit from Carolina’s Tuomo Ruutu on Tuesday.
“An abnormal localized collection of blood in which the blood is usually clotted or partially clotted and is usually situated within an organ or a soft tissuespace, such as within a muscle.
A hematoma is caused by a break in the wall of a blood vessel. The break may be spontaneous, as in the case of an aneurysm, or caused by trauma.”
The Washington Post’s Katie Carrera reported that Caps’s forward Mike Knuble said that Wideman has been sending teammates “gruesome” photos of his leg. Reports are that it has had to be cut open to drain blood out of the area.
The Caps are calling Wideman “week-to-week.” It is hard to tell how long he will be gone. The contusion on his leg after the hit by itself would have been a couple of weeks, at least. Open sores in hockey are particular tricky because of the risk of infection. Players pads and equipment are incubi of bacteria and NHL dressing rooms are not exactly the most sanitary of places, regardless of how well they are taken care of by trainers and staff. It is the nature of the environment. If the cut is large enough to require multiple stitches, Wideman will be out for a while, well into the playoffs.
Which is not what the Caps want to hear.
Fellow blue liner John Erskine played a grand total of seven shifts for 5:53 of ice time on Thursday, with only one shift coming after the first period. Coach Bruce Boudreau called Erskine “day-to-day” and that holding him out was more of a precautionary measure, but it is the second game in a row that the Caps have been forced to roll five defensemen for a majority of the contest. That wears on a team and against the Blue Jackets it started to show.
The second period featured four goals in rapid succession. The first was by Antoine Vermette, who was able to clean up the puck in the crease when the defense could not get it out of Michal Neuvirth’s house. Knuble came right back for the Caps, sweeping in the puck after it got through Blue Jackets’ goaltender Steve Mason’s pad on a shot from Nicklas Backstrom. Fedor Tyutin claimed a goal to make it 2-2 at 13:14 in the second, but Jason Arnott brought a slapper from the slot (off a great feed from Backstrom behind the net) to make it 3-2.
For a night that had some sleepy moments, it was certainly a dizzying stretch. Four goals in 2:17. This reporter could hardly tweet one without the next one coming.
The Caps held on to the lead until Scottie Upshall victimized Washington, a trait he has had throughout his career against them as a member of various teams. Upshall tied the game at 14:23 in the third and Washington was forced into an extra frame, where it knocked out Columbus once and for all when Jason Chimera knocked the puck home with assists from Brooks Laich and John Carlson.
“It went to th net soft, it kind of went off their defenseman and it kind of ended up right on my tape,” Chimera said. “So, it’s hard to miss those ones but those are nice. Especially against your old team. It was a good night.”
Good night for Chimera, but heroics should have been unnecessary.
Columbus is well out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Caps are on a rolling, with the particular quirks and neuroticism that lasted from December through early-March out of the way. All things being equal, Washington should have just stepped on the Blue Jacket’s throat and won the game 4-2 or 5-2.
But, it is not happening that way. The list of injured defensemen grows by the hour – Mike Green, Tom Poti, Erskine and Wideman. Boudreau could be telling the truth and that Erskine will be fine, but the cracks in the façade are starting to show.
“It has happened to everybody and everybody has got injuries, so, we don’t want to hurt but, hey, it is what it is,” Boudreau said. “The law of averages is going to catch up with you. We almost ‘didn’t make it to the end’ [without injuries], we have over 230 man-games lost. That puts us in the upper third of the league in man-games. It is just the job that we got good depth.”
Green and Wideman are puck-moving defensemen. One of the Caps’ biggest problems this year has been moving through the neutral zone or breaking good forechecks. There was a sequence in the second period where the Caps kept having problems gaining the offensive end because their passes and dishes kept on getting intercepted at the blue line. Guys like Green and Wideman dish when necessary but otherwise use their skating ability to gain the line and get deep into the zone before cycling back up to the point and rotating back into the play. Without them, Washington has trouble controlling possession of the puck. That can lead to longer defensive shifts. Longer defensive shifts lead to more potential for errors that eventually lead to goals against.
“Well, yeah, and add to the fact that is a really good forechecking team,” Boudreau said of the difficulty moving the puck against Columbus. “They really came at us and for two periods we only had five ‘D.’ Tyler [Sloan] hasn’t played a lot so by the third he was probably getting a little tired.”
Spring hockey is about endurance. It is about survival. The little things make the difference between winning playoff games and losing playoff series. The ability for a teams’ defensive corps to make it day after day, playing effectively, over the course over a couple of weeks or a month (or months for a deep playoff run) is important on deciding what team moves on. Take the Caps’ situation where their best puck-movers are out of commission and another important aspect – possession – is significantly weakened.
Tune up for the playoffs?
At this point, the Caps just hope to make it there in one piece.