October 25, 2014

Caps weather rough patch under scrutiny of higher standards

The Washington Capitals victory over the Winnipeg Jets Wednesday night was their second consecutive win after dropping their previous four games and six out of their last seven.  That rough stretch had a lot of fans — and some in the media — screaming that the sky was falling, calling for certain players heads, and issuing ultimatums to Coach Bruce Boudreau to shape his team up, or ship out of town.

Is Bruce Boudreau back on the hot seat so soon? (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

To be sure, the Caps did struggle for the better part of two weeks, losing to some teams that will be looking up at them in the standings all season long.  Though they’ve won back-to-back home games, and play four of their next five in the friendly confines of Verizon Center, the power play remains anemic.  The captain, who played well against Winnipeg but still failed to score his first goal at home this season, still isn’t really on track.  And their top defenseman remains sidelined indefinitely with what’s reported as a lingering groin injury.

But all the doomsaying by various fans, bloggers and media members is a little premature.

A seven-game stretch is less than a tenth of the season, and the Caps have over 60 games yet to play.  After 20 games, their record is a solid, if unspectacular, 12-7-1, good for 25 points, second in the Southeast Division and sixth in the conference.  But a mere three points separate the Caps from first place Pittsburgh, and all but one team ahead of them has played at least one more game.

Are the doomsayers too myopic about such a small portion of the Caps 82-game schedule?  “I think so,” Boudreau said after practice on Thanksgiving Day.  “But it is what it is.  We all want to win.  It was a week.  It was not a good week.  But it was a week, you know?  Hopefully this week will be better.  Right now, I told the players we’ve completed a mediocre week.  Tomorrow [with a win over New York] would be a good week.  And the next day [a road game against Buffalo] would be a great week, if we were successful.  That’s why you set goals that are short-term goals during the season, not long-term goals.  Because we’ve still got 62 games left.  That’s a lot of hockey to be played.  The season’s not over by any stretch.”

Thanksgiving time prompts Boudreau to pause and reflect anyway.  Four years ago he was given the reigns of this team — albeit first on an interim basis — after Glen Hanlon failed to guide a talented bunch of youngsters to early season success.  With his name in the paper last season during the awful December stretch of games and the struggles of the past couple of weeks, Boudreau admitted to thinking about when he was given his opportunity, and how quickly that opportunity disappears for some in his profession.

“Believe me, this day [Thanksgiving] I want to come and go now in a hurry,” Boudreau joked, before his words got softer and more reflective.  “Yeah, yeah.  Obviously it has a special meaning, you know?  I mean, I know what it is. Yeah.  I spend a lot of time thinking about it.”

The critics think a lot about the shortcomings of this team, and debate Boudreau’s X’s and O’s, and his new-found commitment to accountability and discipline, a departure for a man widely known as a “player’s coach.”.  Boudreau’s players acknowledged the seriousness of the losing streak, but sided mostly with their coach when it comes to the scrutiny on the micro level.

“I think a lot of people over-exaggerate losing streaks — and winning streaks sometimes,” defenseman John Carlson said.  “It’s about consistency. You know, in order to be a first place team you can’t have too deep of lulls.  Everyone’s going to have them, it’s just how you battle out of them and how long they last for.”

Veteran forward Mike Knuble, who is going through his own personal struggle on the ice right now, addressed at length the pressure he — and the whole team — felt while things were going bad.

“Was the sky falling last week? Yeah, probably a little bit.  We all felt it too, you know?  It’s because we have high standards, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  You want to live up to a higher standard.”

“As a group, you just can’t take days off.  It’s a fine line between winning and losing.  When you’re not on the right side of the line you’re gonna lose.  And you have to do the little things to get over it and win.  But when you don’t you’re going to look bad.”

“As players you gotta feel that way in order to draw the best out of yourself every day. You can’t let things slide because they tend to manifest and they keep going and they keep getting bigger and bigger.  For us, it’s extremely important to have the day-to-day commitment.  You have good days and bad days, but overall you try to keep it on an even keel.  But there’s going to be moments where things flare up and times when you feel real good and times when you feel real bad, even as individuals and groups.”

The Capitals have a chance to really get healthy the next couple of weeks with home games against New York, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Ottawa sandwiched around a trip to Buffalo.  One thing that won’t change is the intense scrutiny Bruce Boudreau and his charges face on a game-by-game, day-to-day basis.

For some fans and bloggers, it’s not enough that the Caps continue merely to win.  They take each loss as a personal affront.  The sense of entitlement for a winner is such that perspective gets lost some times.  It’s been written that nothing short of a Stanley Cup this season will mean failure.  Failure is not qualifying for the playoffs.  Failure is resorting to high salary contracts to reach the cap floor.  Failure is bringing in expensive rental players as trophies to mount on a mantel. Failure is trading a potential No. 1 overall draft pick for an injury-plagued goaltender.

No, the Capitals organization, coaching staff and players aren’t failures.  As Knuble said though, they are held to a higher standard, and that’s okay.  But no team goes through an 82-game regular season without struggling at some point.  Every team loses.  Hockey is hard.

On this Thanksgiving Day, be thankful that you root for a team that has a strong organizational process in place, employs dedicated and resourceful coaches and is stocked with talent, from savvy veterans to all-stars in their prime, with a new set of “young guns” ready to follow in their footsteps.  And don’t take any of it for granted, because it wasn’t so long ago (say Thanksgiving four years ago) when things weren’t nearly as good as they are now, even if the ultimate goal hasn’t been realized yet.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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