Good morning and welcome to the Dart4Pack of Fan Questions, where we provide answers to your most pressing questions regarding the Washington Capitals. Every week through the remainder of the regular season we’ll select four questions and do our best to “keep it real” with our answers.
Let’s get started:
Chuck, when do you expect Brooks Laich back in the lineup and where do you see him fitting in?
If you asked me this question four weeks ago I probably would have told you he’d be back by mid-February. When he returned to the ice in early February, Laich looked like an Amish plow horse, methodically pushing the net the length of the ice at Kettler. But when he joined his teammates for practice he had no push and was ineffective in the corners. Laich put himself through four weeks of intensive muscle therapy and strengthening and looks 100 percent stronger than in mid-February. That said, Laich can be his own worst enemy when it comes to injuries because his pain tolerance is through the roof. He admits time is now his worst enemy. Remember, this guy has not played an NHL game since last May so his conditioning level needs to get up to speed. I’m guessing Laich wants to get into that game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, but after what happened with Mike Green on the second end of a back-to-back, it might be a safer bet to hold Laich off until the second game of that back-to-back in Winnipeg on Friday, March 22, at the earliest. My guess is that Laich could return on the second line, perhaps with Mike Ribeiro and Troy Browuer, but the goal is to play him on the left side of a top line with right wing Alex Ovechkin and center Nick Backstrom or Ribeiro. Laich could also replace Eric Fehr on the second power-play unit and penalty kill.
Hey Chuck, how will the realignment affect the Caps next season? Is it good, bad or neutral?
It’s good and it’s bad, but it’s certainly not neutral. The good is that from an entertainment value, facing teams like the Flyers, Penguins, Rangers and Devils four or five times a season will intensify the rivalries with those teams, especially if the schedule makers can throw a few back-to-backs in there. It’s also nice to see a storied franchise like the Detroit Red Wings playing in the East. On the flip side, is anyone in D.C. doing cartwheels over facing the Columbus Blue Jackets four or five times next season? The bad is that with 16 teams in the East and 14 teams in the West, it just got a little tougher for the Capitals to make the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin brushed that question aside when I asked him about it, but it’s true. Under the new playoff format, the top three teams in each division get into the playoffs, followed by a pair of wild card teams that have the most points of the remaining 10 teams. In my opinion, the biggest impact the new alignment will have is the way teams look at themselves. Will teams like the Caps try to get bigger and stronger knowing they’ll have to fight the Flyers, Rangers, Devils and Penguins for a playoff spot? I’m interested to see how the Caps address that in the offseason.
Which Capital has been the MVP of the first half this season? And who’s your choice for the NHL’s first-half MVP?
To me, Mike Ribeiro has been everything the Caps could have hoped when they acquired him from the Dallas Stars in exchange for Cody Eakin and a draft pick last June. Creative and elusive, he’s the second-line center this team has been seeking for years and has shown some early chemistry with Alex Ovechkin. If there’s a downside to Ribeiro it’s the penalties he’s taken and the temper he shows when penalties are not called against opposing players. It happened again in Carolina Thursday night when Ribeiro was taken down by Bobby Saguinetti and when a penalty was not called, tripped Sanguinetti from his knees. There is a lot to like about Ribeiro and the Caps have a big decision to make in the coming weeks. Do they keep him and try to re-sign him to a long-term contract? Or do they trade him for some real value [a first-round pick in a deep draft?] before April 3. Ribeiro told me he has not asked for a contract extension, would like to stay in Washington, and is willing to wait for the Caps to make the first move. As for the league MVP, you have to give it to Sidney Crosby, who’s running away with the scoring race with 47 points in 28 games.
Chuck, how do you expect the second half of the Caps season to be different than the first?
Another good question. I happened to agree with Adam Oates at the start of this season when he kept telling us the Caps were playing better than their record and that they were slowly getting a grasp of his system. That three-game losing streak was a gigantic step backward for this team and could play a key role in them missing the playoffs. I thought that if the Caps could get to within a game of .500 before the halfway mark they’d have a good shot of getting into the playoffs. As it stands now, they’ll need to finish two or three games over .500 to get that eighth spot. That means they would need to win 13 or 14 of their final 22 games to nail down that final playoff spot. Can they do it? Yes. Do they have the system that allows them to do it? Yes. But to me, it will all come down to goaltending. The Caps will need Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth to play exceptional hockey down the stretch to get them into the postseason, where as we learned last year, anything can happen.