You could probably say that Monday night the hockey world was watching the Washington Capitals play the San Jose Sharks: the game was nationally televised on NBC Sports Network, and about 12 extra visitors including a few general managers and scouts were at the Verizon Center. However, despite the pressure, the Caps could not live up to their expectations and lost to an equally tired Sharks team, 5-3. While the score was close, the Caps looked much more disjointed than what the stat sheet could ever tell.
To say that Washington fell into their normally standard lackadaisical form when playing from behind would not be accurate. To their credit, they actually looked like they cared. After the game, coach Dale Hunter and many of the players felt like their competitive level was rather high, and that they all played really hard tonight. To score in the last second of the second period after going down 3-0, and to still try to keep scoring while down 5-1 takes effort and a pretty competitive heart to continue to play through such a deficit.
But to say this moral victory is a positive for the Capitals would be very incorrect. For a team that should be entirely on par with the Sharks, the Caps played like a far less talented squad — especially after both teams were coming off of losses the day before they met at Verizon. After not losing more than two straight games under Hunter, one would think that Washington would do anything to keep up with that trend, considering how much was on the line.
This season has been full of microcosmsthat explain the ineptitude of the Capitals. A theme that has occurred for Washington has been a
lack of identity and uncertainty in purpose. From Monday’s game, some can conclude that this issue is possibly formed by the lack of cohesiveness in preparation and game-planning. After the morning skate, Michal Neuvirth was declared the starter by news outlets and Neuvirth himself, despite Hunter’s words that it was a ‘game-time decision.’ Presuming Tomas Vokoun would back Neuvirth up against the Sharks, it came as a surprise to the media that Braden Holtby was called up for the game. Just before the game began, it came to everyone’s attention that, in fact, Holtby would start. Also a surprise call-up, Joel Rechlicz was inserted into the lineup the same day. With 15-year veteran Mike Knuble as a healthy scratch for a third straight game and Keith Aucoin sitting for Rechlicz’s spot, it seems strange that a guy that hardly puts up production gets preference on a team that scrapes for goals. Hunter explained the call ups in his post-gamer, but with the Caps so caught up that Joe Pavelski scored on Dan Boyle’s dump-in, it is fair to question whether the team was fully prepared for a battle with a Western Conference team.
The Caps have always been honest about what they could do better in games this season. They say they know what they have to do better: getting sticks in front in their own end, getting physical, staying out of the penalty box, keeping it simple, etc. Yet, after a while, it becomes lip-service when after 56 games, the same statements are repeated because of a lack of execution on those fronts. Against the Sharks, the failure to execute in this one game cost the Caps a chance to be very much in the playoff race, taking the eighth spot and getting back within two points of the Southeast-leading Florida Panthers. Now, Washington has to watch teams they are chasing rack up points while they rest for three days before a crucial four-game road trip that starts against the Panthers. To say the Caps don’t have problems to solve is asinine and naive, but not all is completely lost, either.
While Caps’ GM George McPhee has his own duties to pull the trigger on some roster moves to plug holes and boost this team, for the players that are still in Washington, the solution here, then, becomes simple: instead of moping about the loss over the course of the three-day break, the Capitals will need to insert the improvements they practice over the three days into the more-than-pivotal game on Friday against Florida. That onus is on the players, who have too much talent and hockey sense to be playing inept hockey when in damage-control mode. As for Hunter, the differences between coaching a junior hockey team and an NHL team are moments like these, where a team needs to benefit from a defined system, as well as have the trust and confidence from their bench boss — that’s on Hunter to establish, and establish soon.
Washington has three days to fix the problems that cause these microcosms of failures — if not, they will further risk losing all they worked for in their ‘five-year plan’ toward a Stanley Cup.