By Stu Hackel
They’re one of the NHL glamor teams, half of the rivalry that the NHL is pumping in the Winter Classic. But life hasn’t been glamorous lately for the Washington Capitals and if things don’t turn around, you can bet there will be changes.
The Caps are mired in their worst slump since Bruce Boudreau became their coach, having lost six straight. And while some have wondered if his head is being readied for the chopping block, a check of the standings reminds us that Washington is still second in the Eastern Conference and third overall in the league standings.
Most recently, Boudreau has had neither Mike Green nor Jeff Schultz, his top defense pairing, in the lineup, and how many teams can endure that kind of absence unscathed? The Caps’ main struggles always seem to revolve around keeping the puck out of their own net, so having their best tandem hors de combat can’t help.
Now, putting pucks in the other team’s net is rarely an issue, but the Caps have been shut out twice in their past three games. Nothing went right in the 7-0 pasting they took from the Rangers on Sunday, including some poor play from Alex Ovechkin, whose decisions led directly to the fourth Rangers goal (video), first on a giveaway and then while heading to the bench for a line change while the Rangers moved the puck the other way.
As Ovie goes, so goes the Caps. That’s no secret, but it seems to be part of the problem in Washington. Over the last month, Ovechkin has two goals, nine assists and is merely plus-2 in 14 games. During the team’s current six-game slide, he has two goals and an assist. These numbers are okay for some, but not a player of Ovechkin’s caliber.
As outstanding as he is, if Ovechkin is not going well and there’s little secondary scoring, opponents can key on him and essentially shut Washington down. And with little coming from Nicklas Backstrom (only three assists during the six-game slump), Alexander Semin (two assists) and Brooks Laich (one), no one else apart from Mike Knuble (three goals and an assist) has stepped up to compensate.
Green has missed the last two games, but he’s not been his usual productive self this season, although he has been working hard on the defensive side of his game with some good results. Still, Caps GM George McPhee felt the need to improve the team’s defense, and thought he had when he traded second-line center Tomas Fleischmann to Colorado for veteran blueliner Scott Hannan. That trade coincides with the Caps’ losing streak, and in those six games, Hannan — whose mobility seems limited — is minus-7. Fleischmann, who fell out of favor with Boudreau, looked pretty good on Monday night playing for the Avs against the Blackhawks.
Even before Hannan’s arrival, the Caps’ defensive issues this season manifested themselves in a tendency to give up goals in bunches, which — besides the need for better goaltending — indicates that something is lacking in their team makeup, some resiliency that will allow them to stiffen and battle back and not sag when they’re scored upon.
Perhaps the toughness that’s lacking is a reflection of the coach. Boudreau is not a whip-cracking martinet, but a players’ coach. The Caps have thrived under him during the regular season, but their playoff failures raise the question of whether he’s imbued this club with the hardness that’s needed to go far in the spring.
In his critique of the Caps on Ottawa radio Team 1200 on Monday morning, Pierre McGuire said Boudreau needed to “channel his inner Scotty Bowman.” (audio) Bowman was detested by his players for much of his career. (Steve Shutt of the Canadiens said, “We hated him for 364 days, but we loved him the day we got our Stanley Cup bonuses.”) McGuire’s contention is that the Caps are taking advantage of a good guy who needs to get meaner to motivate his star players. “It’s too easy for them,” McGuire said. “They haven’t been challenged enough.”
Boudreau will no doubt be allowed to turn this around and his job is probably safe for a while. He’s earned it and the current situation is far from critical. Teams go through slumps; it’s a fact of sports. It’s up to Boudreau and his players to figure their way out of it.
Still, the Caps showed too little emotion in the face of adversity on Sunday night in New York and that feeds into the questions that must be raised about the character and flexibility of this team that can be so exciting when things go well, but — as the playoffs last year showed — still doesn’t seem to be able to make adjustments when they don’t.
The Capitals look like a team that has yet to learn some hard lessons.