We all have bad days at the office. Occasionally, we all have really bad days at the office. You know the ones — things start going wrong at 8:45, improve none over the course of the morning, lunch hour mercifully arrives to deliver a reprieve, and then things actually manage to get worse in the afternoon. You slog home on Metro — necessarily, its escalators inoperable, its rail car operation unbearable — as an exclamation point to your dreadful day. At last at home in depressing darkness you collapse on the couch, open a beer, and perhaps even question the appropriateness of your career.
As impassioned hockey fans following an 82-game regular season through fall, winter, and spring, we understand that our guys are gonna have a bad day or three at the office. A few of them, in fact, even if they rank among the cream of the NHL crop.
But games like last Friday night’s in Atlanta and last night’s, just three nights later in New Jersey, represent I think something more than just egregiously bad days at the office for the Capitals. Comcast Sportsnet’s Joe Beninati, in a moment of commendable candor during last night’s second period, summed up the wreckage thusly: “If you’re just joining us, run! Before it’s too late. Don’t look back!” On Twitter last night our friend Peerless pointed out that Capitals’ head coach Bruce Boudreau, speaking of Friday night’s calamity in Atlanta, called it “as bad a defeat I think I have had since I’ve been here,” then asked his Twitter followers, ‘What does Bruce call this one?’
Of course, the NHL rink is no ordinary office. We labor in somewhat solitary fashion in our cubicles and offices, most of us largely in control of our own fate. NHLers face determined adversaries every night. And NHL referees.
And to play Devil’s Advocate for just a brief moment: This November’s slate is clogged with games and travel and precious little practice time. The Caps today will practice in Raleigh, and it will represent their second such session of the month, which is already 23 days old. Go back and look at the gaps between games in October. Even in December you can see regular two-day-off breaks with which to recover and practice a bit. The Caps of late have surely looked like a team that could benefit from some rigorous practice time, but that’s no excuse for what we’ve seen in two of the last three games.
Since time immemorial hockey clubs far more beleaguered than the Caps in terms of injury or locker room strife have acquitted themselves with far greater professionalism than have our guys over the past five days. We understand that bounces go bad, that goalies get hot, that zebras stink up the joint. What we don’t understand, however, is mere minutes into a second stanza after you’ve hung your wet-behind-the-ears goalie out to dry to the tune of 3-0 — to one of the NHL’s worst clubs — how defensemen can futilely stick-check a bull-rushing checking forward barreling down the middle of your zone. Those weren’t prideful NHL rearguards wearing our city’s crest last night; they were matadors. Were Braden Holtby just a wee bit younger Child Protective Services would have have forcibly removed him from the Capitals’ custody during last night’s second intermission.
Perhaps the greatest indictment of the Capitals last night was their uniform indifference to Matt Hendricks’ dropping ‘em in the early going to try and shake his mates out of their conspicuous lethargy. When one of your own places his face before the fists of a foe and you effectively yawn at the courage, something toxic has taken hold of the evening. Again.
And what is with the parade of players into the room in-game for equipment woes all season long? Did our gang gear up at a garage sale of hand-me-downs in the offseason?
A dread that began lodging itself in my breast last spring is this autumn returning with vigor: as constructed this hockey club is capable of wild extremes — looking outlandishly brilliant in 10- and 30-minute stretches of games but also, inexplicably, mailing it in against even the dregs of the league. I’m not talking about the proverbial “playing down to the competition,” as the Caps have been labeled of doing in seasons past. I’m talking about not showing up at all. It invites scrutiny of the outfit’s leadership.
And speaking of the leader . . . what gives? Ten days ago he seemed merely productive and decent if underwhelming relative to his best-in-the-world bona fides. At this pace, though, not only won’t he be captain-picking his teammates at the Raleigh All-Star game, he won’t be picked early by the game’s captains himself.
On Twitter last night I directed this question to Comcast Sportsnet’s Alan May, who is fast becoming one of my favorite analysts in all of hockey: Does it bother you that two of these “performances” have occurred well within a week of one another? In reply he reminded me of hockey’s unavoidable momentum swings, and how at present the Caps are in the downward arc of one. This morning over a cup of joe in his studio I would follow up with this question: Momentum swings aside, what about playing with pride?