For a moment, the puck just sat there by the Washington Capitals bench.
It shouldn’t have—those were precious seconds wasted as the Capitals executed a personnel change, and Mike Green, caught with the puck near Winnipeg’s blueline thanks to his power play positioning, had the opponent breathing in his face. He was forced to pass the puck almost horizontally across the ice to no one in particular, and it made a mockery of the Capitals’ lackluster effort as it sat, briefly untouched, tantalizingly close to their bench.
Awkward personnel changes may be expected while learning a new system, but that wasn’t the heart of the Capitals’ problem Tuesday. Head coach Adam Oates said in his postgame press conference that, on the bench, they saw the lack of energy and were concerned about it.
“The guys looked like they didn’t have much in the tank,” Oates said, suggesting everything that’s happened (or rather, didn’t happen) this season might have played a role, particularly in the players’ game conditioning.
But even that seemed something of a fig leaf next to a majority of poorly played hockey for 60 minutes.
“I still think some of the mistakes out there tonight weren’t the system. I think it’s more we got to look at ourselves,” Oates said.
The good news for Capitals fans is that several of the players don’t seen to be kidding themselves after losing 4-2 in their home opener. Quote after quote—from Matt Hendricks, Troy Brower—was of the no-excuses variety.
And Oates, while measured in his comments, was not afraid get specific, such as when answering a question about Marcus Johansson and saying he didn’t think Johansson was making use of his skating ability. Johansson started the game on the top line and finished with only 10:30 of playing time.
“I felt he could play better. You hope every guy uses his strengths, and one of Marcus’ strengths is his skating ability, and I didn’t think he was skating,” Oates said.
Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Sloppy passing. Blueline turnovers. A shaky performance by goaltender Braden Holtby, who has not looked like himself. The Capitals still look like they’re playing with that feeling you get when you go in to take a test, stare at the questions, and realize you have absolutely no idea.
There are two schools of thought on this—one, it’s only two games into the season. It’s a new system, with new faces on the roster, and a new coaching staff. The other? It’s already two games into a very truncated season. Two losses against divisional opponents. And things still look like they’re something of a mess.
Apropos to Joel Ward’s optimism, he seemed to espouse the first theory, while Brouwer and Hendricks—the only two goal scorers of the night for the Capitals— sounded more on the urgency train.
Hendricks, in fact, was every bit a leader Tuesday night on the ice. He ended up doing the job of an enforcer (two fights), a top-liner (where he scored a goal), and a third and fourth-line energy guy.
Think about that: the guy with the lowest cap hit of any forward on the Capitals roster—excepting newly acquired Wojtek Wolski and Eric Fehr—was the player who took a roster with several highly skilled players on his back Tuesday night and challenged them through his on-ice play to be better in their first game in front of their home fans. Yes, Hendricks is an energy guy, but shouldn’t have needed to worry about lighting a fire under his teammates in the home opener after a long lockout.
I’lll never forget that 5-on-3 penalty kill awhile back when, without a stick, Nicklas Backstrom had no hesitation throwing his body in front of the puck, because he cared about winning that badly.
But on Tuesday, Oates was saying that about Hendricks.
“He’s willing to win at all costs,” Oates said.
Everyone is adjusting to a new system the same as Matt Hendricks. He found a way to make it work. That’s a leader