You can never completely count out any NHL team still technically in a playoff race, but now that the Washington Capitals have lost center Brooks Laich for at least the remainder of the regular season, you can start the countdown to when the official count-out gets announced for them. Alex Ovechkin is Washington’s best player, but Laich is a crucial component of that team – and his absence represents the death knell for their post-season chances.
I spoke with a veteran NHLer last year around the time Laich returned from the lineup after missing the first 28 games of the season with a groin injury. He agreed the 30-year-old center was a key part of their foundation. “They’re a different team with him out of the lineup,” the player said. “They put him out there in a bunch of different situations and he’s got that determined attitude. Nobody else for them brings the combination of things he can when he’s healthy.”
Certainly, Laich’s offensive numbers this year (eight goals and 15 points in 51 games) suggest his game hasn’t fully returned to the level it was at when he was a three-time 20-goal-scorer from 2007-10. But with the Caps already missing center Mikhail Grabovski thanks to a nagging ankle injury, they could’ve used Laich even at 80 percent of his playing capacity. Now they enter their final 13 games of the regular season with Nicklas Backstrom as their No. 1 pivot and 23-year-old Marcus Johansson as their second-line center. Their fans will be hoping recently signed Russian phenom Evgeny Kuznetzov will provide some spark, but until he does it consistently, hope is all they’ve got.
By this time next week, they may not even have that. Because starting Tuesday night, Washington begins a four-game tour of California – including two games against the L.A. Kings, and one apiece against San Jose and Anaheim – that could drive more nails into their competitive coffin. Anything less than two wins will spell certain doom, but realistically, they’ll need a couple victories and a point or two in the other two games to stay in the playoff race. The 10th-place Red Wings have one fewer point than them, but two games in hand; the division rival Blue Jackets are ahead of them by two points and also have played two fewer games; and the eighth-place New York Rangers are struggling (4-5-1 in their past 10), but also lead them by two points and have a relatively easier schedule in their final baker’s dozen of regular-season games.
All this magnifies Laich’s absence. If the Capitals do miss the playoffs, it won’t be solely because he wasn’t around. But it’s another indication this franchise is sliding deeper into the muck of mediocrity and desperately needs new direction this summer.