This morning I am trying to imagine the slogan of resolve and defiance and unity Capitals’ players will brandish on team-issued t-shirts at the start of training camp in September. They are quite good at looking tough and determined, via fashion, and of expressing steely-eyed determination after abject failure. Out on the ice, it’s a different matter altogether.
As currently comprised — and just as importantly, as currently coddled by management — the present band of Caps may well qualify for the postseason this spring, but most assuredly they will not win the Stanley Cup. This morning, it’s difficult to fathom this club scoring enough goals to best any of the surrounding seeds in the Eastern conference postseason’s opening round, let alone win four of them.
And so in all likelihood the Caps will have fresh cause to take more tough talk to the backs of training camp t-shirts again.
This past weekend a reporter I greatly respect, reflecting on the Caps’ pulse-less showings against both San Jose and L.A. at Verizon Center last week, post-game press conference whispered to me that were the Caps situated out West they would almost certainly be outside of the top eight in that conference — outside the playoffs and looking in. A cursory glance at the standings seems to bolster that claim: five of the six worst teams in the league reside in the East. In other words, the Caps’ 68 points this morning would have been a decent bit tougher to come by out West. Last week’s 120 minutes of thoroughly underwhelming hockey against two mediocre Western clubs certainly suggests so.
Saturday’s rare hockey matinee aided the formation of a large contingent of local hockey media for late-afternoon congregating at a D.C. bar, after the Caps’ latest mess-making on the ice, and the sentiments expressed then over pilsners in pint glasses were equally and universally pessimistic about the state of this club. It’s a mess, you could have summarized the bar chatter themes during our wound-licking sippings.
At one point I asked my colleagues in new and traditional media what they imagined was the ceiling of achievement for the Caps out on their five-game roadtrip that begins tonight in Phoenix. Consensus: 2-2-1. That’s the ceiling achievement, the best-case scenario, they said without a dissenting voice. A solid plurality at our table thought 1-3-1 more likely. Next I asked what they imagined would be the state of the club were it to return to D.C. without a single win in a week’s time. A handful of reporters thought that quite possible. This offense-starved club will in all likelihood have to find a way to get a few pucks past Ilya Bryzgalov tonight, best a solid Anaheim club, win for the first time in San Jose since 1993, then confront Ryan Miller and the Sabres and a very revenge-minded Penguins’ club. I got mostly blank expressions at that query.
With any sort of objectivity applied you’d have to cast the Caps as solid underdogs in four of the five games. And as badly as the Pens are beat up, they did beat LA last Thursday night, right before the Kings came to D.C. Moreover, Caps-Pens is hockey’s ultimate rivalry; throw records and recent trends out for it, and just expect the Pens to give a by then road-weary Caps’ club an alley fight. Let’s say it’s seven losses in a row in a week’s time. That’d be an eight-game losing streak in December and a seven-game slide in February on Bruce Boudreau’s ledger this season. Hunky-dory with that?
Boudreau isn’t much known for cracking the proverbial whip; he’s more of a proverbial player’s coach. Last Thursday he ordered a bag-skate of his Caps, to try and shake them out of their lethargy. The team responded with one of its worst games of the season at home Saturday. I see real danger signs in that.
One of my favorites in all of local hockey media, Ed Frankovic, an endearing straight-shooter of truth-talk at every point in a season, is also gravely troubled by the status quo. The Caps, Ed wrote this past weekend, “seem to have more questions than answers” at this point in the season, and are “a team that looks like it will be a one series and done squad in the postseason unless changes are made.”
Frankovic, whose tweets on any given NHL game’s officiating are jewels of caustic candor, is flag-bearer on a crusade of Capitals’ accountability these days. Of Jeff Schultz’s pylon play on Saturday Frankovic observed, “Sarge was -3 in 14:35 [of ice time] and was on the ice for the first three LA goals. He played only two shifts after . . . He was downright awful and slow, and on that third Kings’ goal I think an orange road cone could have played better defense.”
And more Frankovic: “The direction this team is going in right now leads to early tee times.”
For some while now the Capitals have been playing entitlement hockey. That’s their culture. Probably this dates back to last April’s postseason game 5. The Capitals got a scare from Montreal in that series’ first two games here — they were down 4-1 in period three after losing game 1 before securing the split. They flew up to Montreal perhaps somewhat scared. They took care of business on the road in a tough environment and figured the Habs would acquiesce the rest of the way. Only a corrupt and ill-formed hockey culture could harbor such thinking. For God’s sake, they were pitted against hockey’s proudest, most storied franchise.
The Capitals don’t just presume that an evening’s two points are theirs to lose, they don’t just execute a perimeter attack, they skate out on the perimeter awaiting pucks to come their way, with wings and centers way wide and up ice, requisite cohesion an afterthought. In years past, when they were still regular-season hungry, they would attack opposition zones with speed and cohesion, cycling pucks and engineering multiple scoring chances on many an individual rush. This season, it’s most often one-and-done in terms of shots registering on opposing goalies, and more often than that they don’t even register a weak shot on net from their attack. No psyche-breaking puck possession, no waves of quality scoring chances being engineered, no sniping from all angles of the attack. The Capitals skate with an entitlement ethos, for this is the culture management has cultivated.
The Caps once upon a time had a swagger that was merited; today they’ve a swagger premised on hubris.
Back in early January, before things got bleak again, I was on WTOP radio’s ‘Saturday Night Caps,’ and I issued a warning to my fellow pucksheads in the studio that night. It was back then that “Flip-switching” chatter was emerging as an in vogue way of explaining how things had so suddenly gone so sour.
“What exactly has this organization achieved — in its entire existence — to merit skating an entire regular season with an On-Off button,” I blurted out indignantly.
(The answer: Nothing. Ever.)
These Capitals are young, wealthy, happy and well-partied — oh so well-partied — expert at t-shirt design and making amusing television commercials.
And management seems to like it that way.