Plenty of questions for Caps

Will the real Washington Capitals team please stand up.

On Friday, the Caps got a second-straight game-winning goal from a recently called up minor league player. Three days after defenseman Josef Boumedienne netted the game-winner in a 4-3 overtime win over Montreal, rookie Trent Whitfield provided the clincher in a 3-2 victory over powerhouse Ottawa.

The only obvious link to Washington’s suddenly stellar all-around play is the return of Jaromir Jagr, who missed six games with a wrist injury. During that six-game span, the Caps held their own with a 3-3-0 mark but hardly looked powerful, getting blown out 6-0 by the Vancouver Canucks on March 23.

So the question remains, are today’s Caps the team that edged the Northeast Division leading Senators and the playoff-savvy Philadelphia Flyers in the last three weeks ? Or are they the team that has looked frightfully bad in a tie to the lowly Atlanta Thrashers and a loss to the depleted Los Angeles Kings?

The answer is probably a little bit of both.

Heading into Saturday’s tilt with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington is 37-28-8-5, just two points behind Southeast Division leader Tampa Bay. With Jagr, the Washington Capitals may yet win the division. However, their play with Jagr in the lineup has been far too inconsistent this season for one to believe that the Caps will suddenly become Stanley Cup contenders in April.

Before Jagr jumped ship to Washington in 2001, the Caps struggled to score against good teams in the playoffs. In Jagr, one of the league’s superstars, Washington obtained a prolific goal scorer who is deft with the puck and slick with the skate. However, if the Caps were to make a run to the Cup finals, Jagr would have to play offense, defense, pretend he’s the mascot and maybe even light up the opposing team’s net bulb when the guy in charge is not looking.

There are many reasons to think that the Caps won’t be drinking from the Cup. For starters, their defense is extremely porous at times, despite another solid season from goaltender Olaf Kolzig. Heading into this weekend, they had given up the sixth-most goals of the eight probable playoff teams, including just two fewer than the seventh-place New York Islanders.

They have also had a disturbing lack of offensive production from their second, third and fourth lines. Aside from Jeff Halpern’s play on the road –the smallish but tough center has scored 10 of his 12 goals away from MCI Center –Washington’s checking line doesn’t score often enough for the team to be successful against quality foes. The goal by Whitfield on Friday was the first by a fourth-line player in the last 25 games.

On top of that stat, Jagr, Peter Bondra and Michael Nylander, the team’s best three offensive players, have all suffered through major point droughts this season. And in the playoffs, you win with grit, not occasional binges of scoring like the 12 tallies Washington had on Jan. 11 against the Florida Panthers.

But perhaps the best testament to a Capital flop in the postseason is Washington’s 12-23-2 record against probable playoff-bound teams. The only Eastern Conference playoff team the Caps have been able to dominate this year is the Islanders, going 4-0. Against Ottawa, New Jersey, and Philadelphia –the three best teams in the conference –Washington is 4-7 and one of those victories came against the Flyers’ second-string goalie.

While it would be exciting for the Washington area to see the Caps go to the finals –their only trip came in 1998 –this team doesn’t have the toughness, depth or clutch scoring that is evident on several other playoff squads. If Washington really wants to move back into Cup contention in the future, it should get younger or tougher or both.

This team –Jagr or no Jagr– is not going to cut it.

Kipp Hanley is a sports writer for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8053 or e-mail him at [email protected]

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