There have been two paragraphs haunting me this NHL season since I read them February 5 on Backhand Shelf. They come from an epic post by Justin Bourne about when teams realize they aren’t very good:
“For starters: I would say players have a pretty good idea, plus-or-minus a few spots where their team is at heading into the season. ‘We’re going to be a bubble team,’ ‘We have a legit shot to win the conference,’ ‘We’re going to have to be our best every night if we want to be anything other than awful.’ The last one basically equals ‘I’m aware we’re awful.’”
“But as the schedule moves along and your record takes shape and you consider how you think your team has played, that’s when it hits most guys. ‘Dammit, we’ve played well and we’re still only .500. We’re in trouble.’”
The post actually provides a wealth of insight into locker room psyche, and makes this point along the way: “When you finally accept that your team isn’t going to see the post-season, a snowball of negativity takes out the last leg your garbage team is standing on, and what looks like tanking begins.”
It’s impossible to read that and not think of the team you’ve spent time covering this season if, say, it’s not called the Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins. So after the Capitals lost to the Islanders Tuesday, and Mike Vogel asked a question in the locker room last night about .500 that reminded me of what I’d read back in February, I decided to review Bourne’s post and analyze where I though the Capitals really stood, relative to his generic descriptions.
The good news is it wasn’t as bad as I remembered. And the really positive news is Washington’s players have avoided the nail in the coffin to the psyche that Bourne mentioned: they certainly aren’t negative right now. They’re not mathematically eliminated from the postseason, which also helps. But not being in the locker room means journalists and fans are not required, for the health of team and job, to cling to any sort of postseason vision. And right now, it’s just really hard to see.
The Capitals have turned must-wins into the norm this season, and that alone is enough to keep Bourne’s words rolling around in my head. Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Islanders was a good example. The Capitals gave up a 2-0 lead early in the game. But they also had an incredible offensive zone shift also early in the game that forced the Islanders to take a timeout. Unfortunately for the Capitals, they couldn’t convert their opponents’ worn out legs into a goal, which is how that’s supposed to work.
Then, the Capitals clawed their way back to tie the game in the second. One goal was a gorgeous display of skill and hockey acumen by Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer. The other was a shot from the point by John Carlson. It wasn’t a bad effort by the Capitals overall, and they didn’t seem particularly disheartened in the locker room afterwards, unlike at other points this season.
In fact, after being in the locker room, I’m pretty convinced that it would be a disservice to paint this team as anywhere near defeated—simply because I think they don’t want to go back to the dark days at the start of the season, where they were winless and confused. It’s a credit to Adam Oates that everyone has bought in. It’s also ironic to note that, when Bourne wrote his post, the Wild were potentially one of those teams to be bottom-barrel awful, and look where they’re at now. (To be fair to Bourne, he even suggested the Wild weren’t necessarily out of it and asserted teams have bad starts but bounce back.)
But if March ended today, the Capitals would finish the month with only two net wins (yet going into last night, they were still first in the NHL in power play percentage, oddly). That doesn’t inspire much confidence.
I’m generally a proponent of not counting a team out until the final strike of the final inning–comes with the territory of being a St. Louis Cardinals fan. But I will have to eat the verbal equivalent of a five-course dinner if the postseason works its way to Verizon Center.
Sometimes, though, it’s fun to be wrong.