The Caps started the season with a franchise record seven straight wins — the strongest start in the NHL this year. We were a dangerous scoring machine across all lines. It’s the kind of depth that a team shouldn’t deserve if they also have Alex Ovechkin, a seemingly post-contract slump Nicklas Backstrom, and a new, reliable goalie in Tomas Vokoun. Remember when we beat the Red Wings 7-1? I feel no shame in admitting it was the happiest I’d been in months.
Those first seven games, the Caps were a team characterized by consistency and chemistry. Halpern-Perreault-Hendricks and Chimera-Laich-Ward were perfect examples of things that just clicked. The shared style between Alex Semin and Marcus Johansson picked up where it left off last year, and I resumed hoping Mojo could be to Sasha what Backstrom has been to Ovechkin.
But honestly, it feels like that was a different team. Since starting the season 7-0, the Caps are 3-5. What happened when those wins started to drop off was exactly what I’ve always said I wanted: strict accountability. If a player was extraneous, he’d be the next healthy scratch. If he wasn’t pulling his weight, he’d sit on the bench. It wouldn’t matter if his name was Ovechkin or Perreault. If Bruce Boudreau couldn’t see the effort, the discipline, the niche being filled, the guy wasn’t going to play. And if the team dropped the ball, like they did last week against the Dallas Stars, losing 5-2 at home in front of a sold out crowd? Painful bag skate the next day. Suicide sprints like you wouldn’t even believe.
I can’t count how many times I’ve asked for this level of discipline from the Caps. When Knuble called his team “clowns” and “losers” after that Dallas loss, I wanted to shout back “Good! Rule #76: No excuses, play like a champion.” But I didn’t because he was mad, and he would have punched me in the face. Good! Angry, emotional — invested.
But I have to say, I’m not sure I was right about discipline as a solution. The main thing missing from the Caps over the past eight games is the very thing that stood out to me on the strong line combinations at the start of the season: consistency. Isn’t it possible that rotating the roster so much, benching players and putting them through tough practices that, as Tarik El-Bashir pointed out, could build animosity towards coaches and teammates perceived to have been more culpable for the loss, is contributing to the Caps’ inconsistency?
The Caps need to settle down. Showing up one stretch of games and not the next — one night and not the next, one period and not the next, one penalty kill and not the next — will wear on fans and players alike over the course of the long season. And though I’m a fan of discipline, I’m also a believer that these guys wouldn’t be where they are without extraordinary self-discipline. It may be time to sit back and let them play for awhile, and see whether the kinks work themselves out.