The morning after their ugliest loss of the young season, the Capitals didn’t practice. They held a team meeting and video session to look at the improvements they can make and reinforce the positives that came out of a 5-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
Coach Adam Oates doesn’t believe in screaming and chastising players, even after a 1-4-0 start and three consecutive losses. He focuses on being a teacher first and a motivator as a close second. After a defeat like Saturday’s, which prompted several veterans to call out the team’s work ethic, it can take time for players to see more than the results on the scoreboard.
“If it was just the players coaching this team, we probably would have been yelling and screaming at each other and trying to work it out that way. But because the way he is, he’s a rock,” Karl Alzner said of Oates. “He always wants to bring the positive out, and that’s I think why he gets such good results out of some of these guys. He never gets down on anybody.
“He definitely changes the mood and he can control it really well,” Alzner added. “It’s good to look at some positives and kind of reassure us that there are good things even though we’re not getting the results.”
Oates saw an opportunity Sunday to offer players a different way to look at what had transpired 15 hours earlier and then let that message resonate with no on-ice practice.
There were certainly mistakes. The rush that led to Colorado’s first goal wasn’t the first time the Capitals failed to track back properly into the defensive zone. Passes have been off the mark just enough to derail plays and there’s been a lack of focus at the start of games. There are lessons to learn with every turnover, especially in the defensive zone, where the Capitals need to be more responsible and assertive when trying to clear the puck out and that when a game challenges them they need to work as a unit rather than five individuals.
But in Oates’s view there is plenty to build off, including Washington’s lopsided advantage in offensive zone time and 41 shots on net, even if the team didn’t convert as much as it wanted to.
“We’re not big statistical people because sometimes the numbers are skewed, but some of our play last night was excellent and the score was not indicative of that,” Oates said. Colorado “basically got two power-play goals and a shorthanded goal and two goals off the rush. Other than that we were in their end 28 minutes; they were in our end eight minutes, which is a huge, huge difference than our normal numbers. I told the boys, ‘We were in their end 110 times. The previous high of the year was 70.’ So obviously we’re doing a lot of good things. Our D is doing a lot of good things.”
Oates sees improvement, but not enough to overlook the fact that mistakes are piling up and ending up in the back of their net. So he reinforces what’s been working and how the Capitals can perform better. It’s the same message he would deliver if the team were slumping in January or February.
Oates wants players to trust that they can work out of this slide. It’s why he is still weighing whether he will make any lineup changes before the Capitals host the Edmonton Oilers Monday night — he doesn’t want to give the players the wrong impression that there is any sort of panic on his part. From their comments Sunday, Capitals players are in agreement with Oates’s philosophy.
“Of course we all disappointed that we have that kind of start but it’s going to break out,” Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s going to go in our way and we’re going to be fine. We have a great group of guys here and it’s something we go through.”
After the loss, Oates said he didn’t believe the team’s work ethic was a problem although several veteran players – Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Martin Erat – each raised that specific concern. While not everyone sees that as the main issue, it’s evident that there is room for Washington to do more.
“I think the work ethic is there,” Mike Green said Sunday. “You can always work harder. Just when you think your working hard there’s somebody else working harder.”
The Capitals have three games remaining on their homestand to get untracked after what amounts to a five-game false start. But Oates doesn’t want the team to get ahead of itself, so he’s looking only at Monday’s game against the speedy young Oliers as an opportunity for a catalyst.
“Let’s take one. We need one win right now,” Oates said. “I want the guys to feel good. We need to win tomorrow. They lost in overtime last night, I’m sure they’re sour. We’ve got to try to jump on them and win one tomorrow.”