Five points... a 2-0-1 record in a week. Sounds doable. Sounds so tantalizingly plausible that but for a bit more puck luck, a bit more effort, a bit more reward for playing complete games, the Capitals could make up that difference.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is, the Caps are right where they were six weeks ago.
Let's take a look at the week-to-week progress in record and standings for the Caps since the beginning of February:
On February 10th the Caps completed a week of play in which they went 1-2-0 to drop their record to 3-8-1. It left them five points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division and five points behind the New York Rangers for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. It was the last "losing" week the Caps had coming into this week (they are 1-1-0 so far this week with two games left to play).
But have the Caps improved their standing with their change in win-loss fortune? Granted, the turnaround has not been stunning (10-8-0 since February 10th), but it is also clear they have made virtually no head way in the standings. In fact, they are further out of the Southeast Division lead than they were on February 10th, although that could change tonight when the Caps face the Winnipeg Jets.
It calls into question the matter of plausibility. Is it plausible at this point in the season, with 18 games remaining for the Caps, to think that a five-point deficit -- one that has essentially been unchanged for more than a month -- can be made up?
If eighth-place Carolina goes .500 over the rest of their schedule, the Caps will need 23 points in 18 games to tie the Hurricanes. Starting with Game 18, the Caps have played 13 18-game segments this season. In those 13 segments only four times have they hit the 20-point mark (they have not exceeded it). It just so happens that three of those instances are the last three segments, making it ever more tantalizing the possibility that the Caps might nudge themselves closer.
The Caps have their remaining 18 games split evenly between home and road. The old adage goes, "split on the road, win at home." If the Caps earn a split of available standings points on the road (nine in nine games, which would be quite an improvement on their 5-9-1 record to date), they would still need 14 points in nine home games to achieve the theoretical "tie" with Carolina described above. Do they have a 7-2-0 or 6-1-2 run at home in them? In years past, one would be tempted to say, "hell yeah!" After all, the Caps were 110-33-21 at home over the last four years coming into this season. But this year they are a pedestrian 8-7-0, the ninth best home record in the East. And, they have Ottawa, Boston, and Carolina on that schedule -- teams that will themselves be playing either for their own playoff lives or seeding.
One could argue that only now are the Caps finally able to ice a team that resembles what the vision was in September, before The Troubles. Neither Brooks Laich nor Dmitry Orlov had played a game this season before this week. Jack Hillen was injured in his first game as a Cap and has come back only recently. Nicklas Backstrom might have been nursing an injury that he sustained while playing in Russia. Mike Green has been, well, Mike Green (13 of 30 games missed to injury). As that thinking goes, the Caps are poised to make a push with the team they thought they would have. But again, do they have the time with 18 games left, and is there too much rust on the likes of Laich or Orlov for them to provide the juice the Caps need for that longed for late push?
If you look at things in a certain light through a certain colored lens at a certain angle, you could...maybe...possibly convince yourself that yes, the Caps can make the playoffs where "anything can happen." But there is that whole pesky notion of the Caps playing decently over the last six weeks (a 91-point pace over their last 18 games) and making up absolutely nothing in the standings.
It all comes down to the fine line between "hope" and "delusion." More than that, it goes back to a idea we have had in the past that comes to mind thinking about that 3-8-1 hole the Caps dug for themselves. You cannot win a Stanley Cup in the first month of the season...
...but you can damned sure lose one.