A Crisis of Confidence

Posted by Dave Nichols | Monday, December 13, 2010 | , | 0 comments »

The Washington Capitals lost twice over the weekend, 3-2 to Colorado Saturday at Verizon Center, then a 7-0 shellacking at the hands of the New York Rangers Sunday evening at Madison Square Garden.

The two losses run Bruce Boudreau's career-longest losing streak to six games, in which the Capitals have scored just eight times (four in one game), being been shut out twice in the same period.

Not.  Good.

The coach was almost inconsolable after Sunday's spanking. 
"I don't have an answer right now.  I gotta think about this.  It is unfamiliar territory.  And I think we have a lot of people feeling sorry for themselves, but as you can tell, when you get down teams aren't feeling sorry for you, they're... piling it on, so we have to find a way to get out of this.  That's all.  Before it's too late."
The Rangers game was a virtual checklist of bad hockey.

Poor goaltending.  Check.  Bad turnovers.  Check.  Miscommunication between linemates.  Check.  Lack of energy.  Check.

It seemed like Saturday's game against the Avalanche was something of a turning point, as the team played much better, though to the same eventual result.  But the Caps' first seven-goal loss since 2005 erased any sense of recovery.

"It was going okay, until the first goal," Boudreau said, not intentionally trying to being funny.  "In the second period -- I'm trying to find the right words here -- you know, we didn't get a save, you know, was one thing."

"When you've lost now six in a row, you get behind and you get deflated.  And so when they scored a couple of quick goals, and when you're not scoring as a group, then you're going 'Oh jeez, what kind of mountain is this going to be to climb?' and it gets more difficult."

"But that's where you have to resolve.  That's where you have to be defiant and not let it happen.  Right now we have too many guys feeling sorry for themselves."

That seems to be a recurring theme from Boudreau, as he made similar comments after last Thursday's loss.  So whose responsibility is it to shake the players out of their doldrums?  Is it the coach's job?  The captain?  The individuals themselves?

The captain tried to take matters into his hands Sunday, and not in the usual way.  Down 4-0 already, he laid out defenseman Dan Girardi with a nasty hip check, then turned and immediately dropped gloves with the next blue shirt he saw, Brandon Dubinsky. 

Ovechkin did not get the better of the fight, but the result was immaterial.  No, it was more about the intention, trying to inject some life and fight into his corps.  But the effort was perhaps too late in the contest, and, ultimately wasted.

The Great Eight need not resort to fighting to inject life into his teammates though.  He would be much better off with a more traditional sort of inspiration:  scoring a goal.  In the past, there's been no one in the league that shows more passion, excitement and utter joy playing hockey than Alex Ovechkin.  But much of that has been missing this season.

It's been a more workmanlike Ovechkin, and his play is suffering.

Are his captain responsibilities weighing on him that heavily?  Is the fallout from Russia's failure at the Olympic Games still haunting him?  Did the suspensions he earned last season make him change his game that drastically?  Is all the negativity about his personal life in the press changing him as a player?

As he slogs though his worst goal scoring season of his career as he enters the physical prime of his life, these questions are now legitimate.

"We have to group together," Ovechkin said from the locker room Sunday night.  "We don't have to say this guy played bad or made mistakes. We all make mistakes, it's a lot of mistakes. We have to keep together as a team and as a group, we haven't had this kind of situation in a long time. It's something new for us - good teams find wins."

He's saying he right things.  But is anyone listening?

The term "work ethic" gets used a lot in describing hockey players and hockey teams.  It's a concept that tries to quantify how hard a team, or individual players, are playing.  Are the players skating full out for loose pucks?  Are they winning battles off the boards?  Are they completing their checks?

In hockey, it's extremely important to play hard every shift, because in a game with so many funny bounces, it's not always the most talented player (or team) that wins the battle, but the ones that work harder.  And it's also easy to tell when players aren't giving their all.  Even the untrained eye can tell if a player is skating full out or not.

All too often this season, and during this losing streak in particular, a sense of urgency has been missing from the Capitals.  A lot goes into it, though.  Injury, complacency, indifference; they are all factors.

How do they get it back?  And who leads them to it?

Alex Ovechkin is the best player for the Capitals.  His goal scoring is down by half under his career numbers.  The team is in a crisis of confidence. 

The math is easy.  They need Ovie to get his mojo back.  Quickly.

Before it's too late.

***Post-game quotes culled from various sources, including The Washington Post and NHL.com