Most unfortunate words to measure by. But measure we must, especially now. They represent, I wager, a point of no return for this Capitals club — under this leadership regime.
One thing about wearing hockey no. 8 in Washington — you know the high-definition cameras are ever on you, from numerous angles, and on November 1, late in the evening against Anaheim, the Capitals’ captain, unceremoniously benched for a game-deciding shift, knew full well his obscene reaction would be captured for all the world to see.
The conventional interpretation at the time was that the fiery captain was merely giving vent to frustration. His competitive combativeness just got the better of him, you know. Certainly the Capitals would have you believe that. Problem is, this is not a fiery captain. Also, not an accomplished one. In fact, this season, he’s largely a lethargic, very minus-skating, very ordinary looking captain. Another problem with that initial interpretation is that the Capitals and their captain had already started their standings descent under this coach, again, and the circumstances that have followed the remainder of this November fairly beg for a reconsideration of that remarkable moment. Prior to November 1, when did you ever encounter a moment of such insolence from the guy wearing the ‘C’ on your beloved team’s sweater? Not in this town, not with this team.
This morning, we could look back on November 1 and Ovi’s outburst and deem it a moment of contempt . . . a mutinous moment, in fact.
And if the captain isn’t all in, what’s the likelihood all his teammates are? It would be interesting, would it not, to poll all those Hockey News writers and editors who fancied the Caps the Cup favorite back in late summer, this very morning, and see where they stand now.
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For me, the very first serious warning sign arrived early in April 2010, just days before the start of that season’s postseason. The Capitals, running away with the Southeast division en route to a 121-pt. regular season, went to Columbus and held off an under-manned but tenacious Bluejackets team, winning 3-2. After the game, Bluejackets center R. J. Umberger told the Columbus Dispatch that the Capitals were a bunch of floaters, that theirs wasn’t a game ready for the prime time of the postseason. In the humility-laden sport of pro hockey, this was a serious callout.
“A good defensive team is going to beat them (in the playoffs),” Umberger told the Dispatch. “If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they’re going to get frustrated because they’re in their zone a lot.” Umberger’s comments proved prescient; about three weeks later the Montreal Canadiens would author one of the great shockers in the history of NHL postseason hockey, eliminating the 121-pt. Caps in the first round, executing with unwavering discipline a bunched-in box of a defensive shell against Gabby’s floaters. Bruce Boudreau’s postseason ledger in Washington fell to 1-3. For me, that series was a serious warning sign.
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Aside from the particulars of Umberger’s critique, in a larger sense he was calling into question the Capitals’ identity. Failure, which Umberger forecasted a fait accompli for the Caps, would render Bruce Boudreau’s finesse attack a fad. There are few critiques more derisive of a hockey team than being branded “floaters.” Umberger played a key role in the Flyers’ team that dispatched Gabby’s Caps in round one in April 2008.
Saturday night in Buffalo, facing a Sabres team ludicrously beyond depleted by injury — nine regulars missing from the Buffalo lineup — Capitals skaters opted to sit back and attack their wet-behind-the-ears adversaries with a patient, largely forecheck-free strategy of counter-punching. In its conclusion the 5-1 debacle — the second consecutive Saturday night massacre against a slightly better than average American Hockey League outfit — occasioned a near aneurysm from Comcast’s Alan May on ‘Capitals Postgame.’ “This is a hockey team without an identity,” May sternly lamented.
May’s in-studio broadcast partner, Al Koken, was left similarly crestfallen and rage-filled by the shocking showing. He directed a very big-picture question to the very unsuspecting game call team of Joe B and Craig during the postgame, asking the duo to reflect on “where this organization is” right now. Not a question merely about a seriously struggling hockey team, but an interrogatory directed at the heart of the organization as a whole. A commendably gutsy bit of journalism on Koken’s part. Watching on television, a viewer in that moment felt the discomfort it caused the game’s broadcasters. Joe B was able only to stammer out something about the Caps needing better goaltending, as if this team was merely a Band-Aid between the pipes away from prosperity, then followed with speculation that things may be so dire that Gabby would have to return to his now infamous trap of a season ago. Imagine.
Question: How is it possible that four years into Gabby’s tenure we are at pains to identify an identity for this $60 million hockey club?
This is quite literally the case: on any given night, no matter the standing of the opponent, and certainly no matter the volume of regulars potentially missing from the foe’s lineup, we have no idea what Capitals team will show up. We also have no idea what Capitals team will show up from period to period.
I consider this a gravely serious warning sign.
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Much was made in the preseason of what was perceived to be savvy veteran additions brought in during the offseason by general manager George McPhee. In hindsight, too often the Capitals competed in the postseason in recent years with too inexperienced a lineup, the theory went. This fall, we are learning that this notably more experienced team is mentally, psychologically fragile. Karl Alzner addressed this trait head-on in the aftermath of last Friday night’s blowout loss to the Rangers.
Mentally weak hockey clubs reflect poorly on that team’s leadership. Put another way: How often have you heard it said of Babcock’s Wings or Bylsma’s Pens that they yield a goal or two at inopportune times and . . . turtle?
I consider this yet another warning sign.
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That 7-0 start to the season seems positively aberrational. We were startled by the commitment the Capitals showed then to crashing the opposition cage, to getting goals in the proverbial ‘ugly’ fashion — the way you need to in the postseason. It didn’t last. This month, most often, when the Capitals prevail it’s been in a white-knuckle affair, no matter the caliber of opponent. When they lose, which is often, often they’re blown out. This, too, I consider a dire warning sign.
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More gutsy journalism: Saturday night the Washington Times‘ Dan Daly directed a tweet my way in which he alleged that the Capitals are big on marketing and branding but conspicuous under-achievers with what really matters. What’s amazing is that the Caps go to such great lengths to create a “brand,” and yet they have no “identity,” Daly tweeted. Again with the identity issue. I hadn’t truly reflected in such fashion until prompted to by Daly. I confess, painfully: I am 100 percent in agreement with him.
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By no means is this viewpoint meant to scapegoat Bruce Boudreau. In fact, whether he stays or goes, there remain gravely serious questions about Ovechkin’s fitness for team captain. And what of this fragile team psyche meme that Alzner honed in on? Maybe it’s a byproduct of an organization spending years overly catering toward, and coddling, it’s $10 million dollar man. “Branding” rather than competing especially well, as Dan Daly puts it.
I chatted about this whole mess with my father last night. He and I enjoyed an amazing father-son weekend for the Winter Classic up in Pittsburgh almost a year ago. I told him, Pops, you know what I enjoyed most about that weekend? As magnificent as the Red Army was in that football stadium during the national anthem, as euphoric as our victory walk out of it was at night’s end, what I enjoyed most was the thoroughly unexpected performance of the Capitals’ alumni against the vaunted and much younger and much more star-studded Pens alumni. It was just like old times. We out-worked them. We out-hustled them. We battled til the end. We stunned them.
I want that Capitals ethos back. Do whatever it takes to secure it.