- Thursday night's game summed up in a picture (Photo: Associated Press)
On the first day of December, the Capitals recorded their first win in St. Louis since 1996, defeating the Blues 4-1. They have not won since. In the interim, they have lost four times, the latest loss being Thursday night's 3-0 defeat at the hands of Tomas Vokoun and the Florida Panthers. The first two of those defeats, a 2-1 loss at Dallas and a 3-1 home defeat to Atlanta were excusable (only an untimely whistle from referee Dan O'Rourke and a scorching-hot Ondrej Pavelec denying the Caps at least a point).
Monday's 5-4 shootout loss to the Maple Leafs and Thursday night's poor all-around performance against Florida were of a different sort all together.
"There's no excuse," said Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau, who managed to contain whatever fury he might have been feeling during his postgame press conference.
"If your best players aren't your best players, you're not going to have success," Boudreau said, and he went on to name those players one at a time:
-Alex Ovechkin has scored just five goals in 18 games since the calendar turned to November. Despite scoring a goal apiece in the losses to Atlanta and Toronto, the captain has scored just 2 in his last 12 games after Thursday night.
-Alexander Semin, once the hottest player in the NHL, hasn't scored a goal and has recorded just three assists during the team's current four-game skid.
-Mike Green has not scored since November 14 and recorded just one point in the nine games since that date. When Boudreau was asked Thursday night to evaluate his newly forged defensive partnership with Scott Hannan, Boudreau declined, saying "It's hard to evaluate them when Mike Green didn't play up to his usual standard tonight."
All three players, along with Nicklas Backstrom and, to a lesser extent, Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble were among those singled out and targeted for improvement by Boudreau: "If your offensive stars are struggling, you'd better win 1-0." And as Boudreau surely knows as well as anyone, the Capitals don't do 1-0. In fact, in Boudreau's entire tenure in Washington, his team has never played a game that ended with that scoreline.
But to hear him tell it Thursday night, his players felt that going behind 1-0 really was the end. "I walked into the locker room after the second period, and heads were hanging," Boudreau said. "We were down 1-0. My job in that instance is not to give them crap, but to let them know how good they are.
"Then," Boudreau said, "we got down 2-0 and you could see the shoulders sag."
Going up against Tomas Vokoun surely didn't help matters, and the Panthers did well to recover their bearings after being outshot 18-6 in the first period (the final shots on goal total was 36-32 to the Capitals). But on the heels of Monday night's memorable throwaway loss, and with the Capitals unable to convert on eight, count 'em, eight power plays (including a 113-second-long two-man advantage in the first period), the frustration was too much for the players to bear with a smile.
"We've let a lot of teams, recently, come in here and leave feeling good about themselves, and frankly, it's grown tiring," Knuble said after the game. "Nobody's more embarrassed then the players. It's not on [Ovechkin], it's not on [Backstrom], it's not on our top guys, it's on everybody."
Nothing summed up the Capitals' evening more than those eight power plays, which were plagued by oversharing early in the game and an excess of individualism with the Capitals trailing late on.
"We didn't play how we have to play," said Alex Ovechkin. "We played it so casual, and you can see the results.
"We know our strengths. When we play simple, when we do what we have to do, it works. When we play casual, it doesn't work."
No team, in any sport, is ever truly as bad as they look when things are going poorly as they are going for the Caps now. Likewise, no team is ever truly as good as they look when everything's going right. It wasn't that long ago that evil rumors were afoot regarding the Penguins' slow start as it related to head coach Dan Bylsma. Now that Pittsburgh is on an 11-game winning streak, such talk seems silly.
But the Capitals have picked a very bad time to hit a rough patch, coinciding as it does with Pittsburgh's rise, Washington's longest homestand of the regular season, and a procession of apparently beatable teams on the schedule (the Maple Leafs, Panthers, and a reunion with old friend Tomas Fleischmann and the Colorado Avalanche scheduled for Saturday night).
Better times are no doubt ahead for the Capitals this season, but no one knows just when those times will come, and judging on last night's performance, such a moment seems very far away indeed.
My Three Stars
Tomas Vokoun- Faced 36 shots, stopped 36 shots. Can't ask for more than that.
Mike Weaver- Played much of his 21:52 of ice time against the Capitals top line, and was so good at doing so that Boudreau actually switched Ovechkin from left wing to right wing in the hope that he'd find some Weaver-free ice to run free in. It didn't quite work.
Michael Frolik-Scored the opening goal of the game with one second left in the second period, changing the momentum of the game irrevocably.