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The State of Things

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Things aren’t great.

NHL: Eastern Conference Qualifications-Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Things aren’t so great for the Washington Capitals right now.

They’re down two games to a team that would have entered the playoffs as a seventh seed under normal circumstances, they’ve blown leads in both of those games (and the last playoff game before that), and it’s happening at the hands of Barry Trotz, the guy who for all intents and purposes was deprioritized in favor of giving Todd Reirden a crack at the egg. The Capitals are struggling to score, their defensive coverage has been feckless, special teams hasn’t been the strength that has held up Caps’ teams of years past, and goaltending has come up small in big moments.

But the stark reality is this: none of this is particularly surprising. In two full nearly full regular seasons, the character of the team’s play has been nearly unrecognizable from the era that preceded it.

Somehow Reid Cashman was selected from the pool of available coaching talent to replace Lane Lambert as man-in-charge of the defensive corps, and by any reasonable measure he’s been nothing short of a disaster. The once vaunted Capitals power play has finished 15th and 17th in the League during the last two seasons, and so the value Blaine Forsythe is adding from behind the bench is hardly evident.

Meanwhile, it’s looking like the second-most decorated goaltender in franchise history’s remaining tenure with the team has dwindled to as little as two remaining games, his presumed replacement apparently injured himself on an ATV in Russia and isn’t with the team for these playoffs, the best athlete the city has ever known is entering the final year of his contract, phenom youngster Alexis Lafreniere will be entering the division, and in addition to Alex Ovechkin, core players Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller, John Carlson are all 30 years or older.

Focusing back on the current series with the Islanders, J.P. made a point on today’s episode of Japers’ Rink Radio that we’ve made at this site many times over the years, but bears repeating right now, and that’s this: coaching strength and coaching weakness is thrown into sharp relief during the playoffs, because during the regular season coaching operations are largely focused internally — creating and refining systems — while during the playoffs coaching operations are largely focused externally — beating the other guys’ systems. And it doesn’t take a highly trained eye to see the glaring deficiencies that track directly back to the Caps coach’s room.

Breakouts from the offensive zone have been an unspeakable atrocity, and the Islanders have been able to quickly make tactical adjustments when the Caps finally start finding some angles. The Islanders forwards are breaking down the defense seemingly at will, and coverage in front of the net is a flailing sarlacc pit of misery. Their best bet entering the zone on a power play is dumping the puck into the corner and hoping for the best, and overall their play deteriorates as the game advances.

None of this means that things can’t change. After all, Capitals fans hardly need to be reminded that a two-game lead doesn’t guarantee victory for a Trotz-coached team. But in the summer of 2018, Todd Reirden was given the keys to a Lamborghini, and in the two years since, it’s become evident he simply can’t handle the horsepower. He’s not out of track just yet, and maybe all the pieces finally slide into place for him, he makes the turn, and gets another piece of the track. If not, however, he’ll have taken the World Champions from the top of the hockey world to a team beaten like a drum by a wild card in two consecutive seasons.

The winds of change have the Capitals in their crosshairs, and time is running awfully short for them to get out of the way.