WASHINGTON - As the Capitals and Vancouver Canucks prepare for their Friday showdown at the Verizon Center, each team finds itself in somewhat foreign territory - on the outside of a playoff position.
The Capitals, who have reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs each of the last six years, enter play Friday in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, three points out of a wild card spot. The Canucks, winners of five straight Northwest Division titles, come to the District in 10th place in the Western Conference, four points out of a wild card position.
It has certainly been a turbulent year for both Washington and Vancouver, two cities that have grown accustomed to regular-season success, albeit with mixed results in postseason play. Consider that since 2008, the Capitals and Canucks are the only two teams to have won five division titles and the only two teams to have won multiple regular-season conference titles.
Yet here we are, less than three years removed from the Capitals and Canucks finishing atop the Eastern and Western Conference standings, and both teams are fighting desperately to avoid a spring without playoff hockey.
"The ebb and flow in this season has been as challenging as it's ever been," Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis told reporters this week at the GM meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. "There are reasons for it — multiple reasons for it — but currently, right now, we're not meeting my expectations, we're not meeting a lot of people's expectations and that has to change."
The Canucks have lost 12 of their last 15 games (2-12-1 over that stretch), No. 1 goalie Roberto Luongo was sent to the Florida Panthers ahead of the NHL trade deadline and Vancouver continues to deal with injuries to top players.
While Captain Henrik Sedin recently returned from a rib injury that sidelined him for eight NHL games plus the Olympics, Daniel Sedin will miss his sixth straight game Friday with a hamstring injury, while Ryan Kessler is out with a knee injury. Kessler, the Canucks' goal-scoring leader with 22 tallies this season, will miss the remaining three games of Vancouver's four-game road trip, according to the team.
"They're not excuses but we've had massive injuries this year. We've had key guys out of our lineup for extended periods of time," Gillis said.
Added Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa Wednesday in Winnipeg, "It has been a miserable, miserable two months for us."
Like the Canucks, the Capitals haven't exactly played their best hockey either. The Capitals enter play Friday having lost five of six games and are 13-of-21 overall. In order to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a seventh straight season, the Capitals would most likely need to win at least 10 of their remaining 15 games.
"Winning hockey games is what we have to do to get in and that's all we're concerned about right now," Capitals forward Troy Brouwer told reporters after practice Thursday.
"For us, a lot of the guys in here relish the opportunity that it's a tight race here. There's so much pride in this dressing room and there's so much determination and we know that we've got to pick up our game to get in the playoffs."
Capitals coach Adam Oates said Thursday that he's not yet sure whether Jaroslav Halak or Braden Holtby will start in goal against the Canucks. Halak has started three straight games, including back-to-back against Pittsburgh on Monday and Tuesday.
"When you bring a guy like Jaro in, you want to see what he could do to help the team," Holtby told reporters Thursday.
"This is a normal hockey situation. This is normal for goalies. Sometimes you play and sometimes you don't. As long as he's giving us a chance to win whenever he plays, that's all we can ask for and I try to be a positive influence."
From Russia with Orlov:
The Capitals announced Thursday that they have signed defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a two-year, $4 million contract extension. Orlov, 22, has registered nine points (three goals, six assists) and 19 penalty minutes in 38 games with Washington this season.