ARLINGTON, Va. – Alex Ovechkin is injured. A benched player is needling the coach. Players are talking about being outworked and not being mentally prepared.
The usually upbeat owner calls one performance “unacceptable” and all but declares the next game a must-win, only to watch it turn into another clunker. The coach’s idea of a “solid game” these days in one in which the team falls behind after 10 minutes instead of the usual three or four.
Oh, yeah, and the trade deadline is a few days away.
Such is the state of the Washington Capitals, a team whose annual chase for a title is turning into a feeble attempt just to make the playoffs.
“We had huge expectations,” forward Mike Knuble said Thursday. “And it hasn’t played out the way we planned.”
That’s the exact sentiment the Capitals are usually uttering in April or May, after they’ve crashed out of the playoffs after winning the Southeast Division. This year, they are sitting outside the post-season—in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and third in the Southeast—after a road trip in which they lost their final three games by a combined score of 12-3.
“The last two games, we weren’t ready to play,” defenceman Karl Alzner said. “We weren’t prepared mentally.”
With such signs that perhaps not everybody has their heart in it anymore, the players held their own meeting Thursday morning. It only lasted a couple of minutes, and, according to Alzner, served to make sure that no one would be trying to “mail it in.”
“I think when you’re so used to winning games in the regular season and you stop winning and you’re not at the top of the league, your whole mindset changes,” Alzner said. “It’s like that with every person in regular days, something doesn’t go your way and you start to second guess yourself a little bit.
“It’s the same thing with us. When we’re not doing what we used to be doing, you start questioning. That’s when bad things happen. You find the players that play the best are the ones that go out and just do it—they don’t overthink the game. That’s been a little bit of our issue.”
Added Knuble: “Your team better have frustration—because guys want more; they want to achieve more. There’s going to be frustration, but then it comes to a point where it can get in the way.”
There were other developments aplenty at the rink as the Capitals returned home for the first time in a week, starting with the star player who’s just not been himself lately.
Ovechkin, who missed Wednesday’s 5-2 loss at Ottawa with a lower body injury, showed up early and skated laps by himself for about 10-15 minutes, but not at full speed. He didn’t return for practice and did not speak to reporters. Coach Dale Hunter said the former two-time NHL MVP was day-to-day.
Ovechkin is already on pace for his worst season by far—he has just 45 points and only one game-winning goal—and associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig said last week the Russian star had perhaps become “wrapped up too much in the rock star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin,” a notion later reinforced by general manager George McPhee.
Ovechkin’s absence against the Senators didn’t seem to make much difference anyway. The Capitals gave up the first goal for the sixth straight game, fell behind 2-0 for the third straight game and 4-0 for the second straight game.
Ovechkin or not, the Capitals aren’t going to win much if they keep falling behind.
“Teams are taking advantage of our slow starts right now,” Alzner said. “And we’re too fragile to be able to bounce back.”
Even the daily blog posting from owner Ted Leonsis was a bit subdued. The same boss who deemed “unacceptable” the 5-0 loss at Carolina on Monday and declared “We need that win” before the Ottawa game watched the latest loss and wrote something that seemed a bit cryptic: “There is a lot to think about—there is a lot to read. There is a lot to do.”
Certainly, the Capitals haven’t caught fire under Hunter, who took over when Bruce Boudreau was fired in November. The coach dismissed Alzner’s assertion that the team wasn’t mentally prepared and instead maintains that Wednesday’s three-goal loss was a good team performance undermined by an off night from goaltender Tomas Vokoun.
Yet, when pressed to cite what was good about the game, Hunter could only come up with: “Not falling behind early.” That’s true only in a relative sense: Washington gave up the first goal at 9:36 as opposed to 3:41 (vs. Carolina) or 2:10 (in the previous game vs. Tampa Bay).
One player none too pleased with the coach these days is Roman Hamrlik, who was a healthy scratch for the Ottawa game in part because Hunter said the veteran defenceman was taking untimely penalties.
Hamrlik responded by referencing the 3,565 minutes Hunter spent in the penalty box as a player.
“You should ask him about the penalties,” Hamrlik said, “because when he played I think he make lots of penalties … so he should know better.”
Hamrlik is one of the players mentioned as a possible commodity ahead of the Monday trade deadline, which is yet another distraction. Given the state of the Capitals—and the fact that they’re still very much in the playoff race despite the current slump—it’s hard to figure which moves the front office will make.
“It’s in the back of your mind as a player,” Hunter said. “You don’t block something like that out.”
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP