Will the Caps be sellers at the trade deadline? Uh, check back tomorrow?

Will the Caps be sellers at the trade deadline? Uh, check back tomorrow?

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

The Washington Capitals are walking along a tightrope.

On paper, they’re still in playoff contention, just six points out of third place in the Metropolitan division with two games in hand on — and two remaining matchups against — the Philadelphia Flyers, who currently hold that spot. But with the trade deadline looming next Friday, decision time for Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan is just around the corner.

Life on the knife’s edge is unfamiliar territory for the Capitals, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014 last season. But even last year wasn’t quite like this, with their hopes still hanging in the balance as the deadline crept closer and closer. Last season, amid a five-game losing streak in mid-February, MacLellan pulled the plug swiftly, trading Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway on Feb. 23 — eight days before the trade deadline — and sending a clear message that Washington was out of contention.

This time around, the Capitals are doing just enough to keep themselves in the mix, but they can ill afford any further missteps like Tuesday’s 8-3 drubbing in Detroit. They host the Flyers on Friday in a game that could determine which way the trade winds blow next week, and they know just how important that game will be.

“You want to put the upper management in a position where we’re right there,” center Dylan Strome said. “I think we’ve done a decent job the last 10 games of battling back and putting ourselves at least within striking distance. Especially [Friday], we’re six points back of Philly, right? And we have two games against them and two games in hand. You look at it that way, we’ve got to take care of business tomorrow.

“We’ve got a couple games before the deadline. Pretty sure if we go 3-0 in these next three games, it’s going to make the decisions a little tougher.”

Washington was off on Wednesday and returned to practice Thursday. After a loss like Tuesday’s, the expectation was that the Capitals would turn in a focused, high-energy practice as they look to get back on track against Philadelphia. That isn’t what Coach Spencer Carbery received.

Toward the end of practice, with one drill left to complete, Carbery gathered his group along the boards and lit into them. He declined to discuss his message in detail, saying only that he was “frustrated with some of the things that I saw,” but it was evident that he was deeply displeased with his team’s effort.

“It’s a good wake-up call,” winger Anthony Mantha said. “Obviously, didn’t play well last game, and then we get a day off and we come back and kind of have sloppy passes, sloppy plays. It’s just a good reset.”

Mantha illustrates Washington’s current dichotomy. If the Capitals are going to make the playoffs, they will need Mantha, who has turned in a resurgent season with 18 goals and 32 points in 54 games — his most productive campaign since being traded to Washington from Detroit in 2021. But Mantha, a pending unrestricted free agent on a scoring hot streak, is also the kind of player that contending teams are looking for at the trade deadline.

Mantha’s name, along with the names of center Nic Dowd, goaltender Charlie Lindgren and winger Max Pacioretty, has begun to appear in trade rumors in recent weeks as speculation about the market has grown. The Capitals aren’t blind to what’s happening outside their dressing room, but as a team still fighting to have a chance, they’re trying their best to ignore it.

“It’s tough,” Mantha said. “I mean, it’s tough for everyone. Obviously, the last game is absolutely not the way we wanted it to play out. I think as of late, if we took that game out, we’ve been playing some good hockey. The guys are battling in here. We want to cross that line on the positive side, and that’s what everyone’s focused on here.”

“No one wants to have guys move on and go to teams that are at the top of the standings,” added Strome. “We’re a team in here, and it’s an important game for us tomorrow.”

There are rarely must-win games at this time of year, with over a quarter of the games still left to be played. But for Washington, facing the team its chasing in the playoff race exactly one week before the trade deadline is about as close to a must-win game as it gets in early March.

Decisions around trades will be made soon, and if the Capitals hope to remain in contention — maybe taking a few steps forward on the tightrope — a win on Friday will be an important bellwether for their chances.

“Obviously, Detroit wasn’t good enough,” Strome said. “We’ll be ready for tomorrow. It’s our biggest game of the season.”

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