Nations: Capitals’ playoff hopes flounder

Has the Washington Capitals’ savior at last arrived from the frozen steppes of Mother Russia?

Four years in the making, since the Caps gambled an NHL first-round draft pick on the mythical young talent known as Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington fans have waited … and waited … and waited some more for the day to finally come when Kuznetsov would don his Caps sweater for the first time.

Turns out, he’s just in time to save Washington’s 2014 season … or not.

The 21-year-old forward signed his long-awaited entry-level contract on Saturday, and by Monday night he was on the ice alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom — for a few minutes, anyway — in a critical home matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It’s not as if Kuznetsov acquitted himself badly, either — for a rookie making his debut just days after arriving on U.S. soil, he did just fine. What he couldn’t do, what he probably can’t do and definitely shouldn’t be expected to do, is salvage the Caps’ floundering playoff hopes.

Same goes for newly acquired goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who is supposed to upgrade the Caps’ net-minding efficiency in combination with Braden Holtby. Same goes for forward Dustin Penner, another newly-acquired piece counted on to bolster Washington’s offensive depth.

All of them can help — even Kuznetsov, perhaps — but none will likely matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. This year, they are simply complementary pieces and nothing more than that. The real burden on saving this season still falls on the shoulders of Ovechkin and Backstrom and Marcus Johansson and all the other veterans who somehow haven’t translated considerable talent into consistent winning after all these years of trying.

That’s the Washington Capitals, right there — an impressive collection of individual talent, which just can’t seem to string together much on a night-to-night basis. In that way, Kuznetsov fits in perfectly with the Caps. In 31 games with Chelyabinsk Traktor of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, Kuznetsov tallied eight goals and 13 assists. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder dealt with some nagging injuries this year, but is OK to play now. Kuznetsov led Chelyabinsk in scoring each season from 2010 through 2013, so there’s real potential there for another solid point producer for Washington.

Then again, points don’t really seem to be the problem with this team. Not the main problem, in any event. With the dynamic combo of Ovechkin and Backstrom leading the way, Washington can score goals. Preventing them, now that’s another story.

Picking up another goalie in Halak — by the numbers (as in, save percentage), only a marginal upgrade over the man he was traded for and replaced in Michal Neuvirth. There were other parts involved in Caps vice president and general manager George McPhee’s deal with the Buffalo Sabres — Washington also shipped out defenseman Rostislav Klesla and got a 2015 third-round draft pick in return.

Where the Caps really could have used an upgrade was on defense. While Washington puts up a respectable 2.80 goals per game average (12th in the NHL), they are a much more unsightly 24th in the league in goals against average (2.92). Finding some reliable help to reinforce good defensive players like Karl Alzner and John Carlson might well have meant much more than whatever gains Washington did net through McPhee’s wheeling and dealing.

The Caps entered Tuesday night’s rematch against the Penguins 10th in the NHL Wild Card standings, still two spots out of the playoffs but tantalizingly close to jumping Detroit and Columbus to get back in the playoff picture.

The problem is the remainder of Washington’s schedule, a brutal slate of 15 games headlined by next week’s three-game West Coast road trip to face the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings.

Home games follow against the Kings and Boston Bruins. A poor showing during that stretch could sink the Caps, no matter how well Kuznetsov, Halak and the rest of the newcomers perform.

The Capitals are in a tough spot, and expecting significant late-season help — let alone miracles — from a rookie, a likely platoon goaltender and a third-line forward is about as much wishful thinking as burning a first-round draft pick on a player it takes four years to sign to a contract.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>