Twice, they gave it up, and lost.
And so the crowd that filtered into Verizon Center was presented with something it hadn’t even pondered over the past five seasons: The home team, three years removed from posting the best record in hockey, with the worst record in the NHL.
“Personally, our staff has our goals,” Oates said Friday. “. . . We’ll evaluate as we go along.”
Friday night’s 3-2 victory over the Flyers, who are similarly trying to find themselves in this odd, lockout-shortened season, now becomes part of the evaluation.
Nicklas Backstrom scored his first goal of the season, added an assist, and looked like a version of his old self.
Alex Ovechkin played what was, by Oates’s estimation, his best game yet, firing seven shots on net, even diving to keep a puck in at the blue line.
Braden Holtby got his first victory of the year in net, and the Capitals earned their second win in the eight games they have played thus far.
But Oates’s personal goals and expectations for this group are shaped predominantly by what he knows from a week-long training camp and a shaky-at-best start to the season.
The players, they realize that losses are no longer laced with promise, that fighting for a playoff spot isn’t what these people paid to see.
“Obviously,” Backstrom said, “you know you have that pressure on you.”
It’s worth remembering — as the Capitals again trot out a slogan of “Building America’s Hockey Capital” — that when this used to happen, when seasons stumbled at the start or sputtered before February, only the truly obsessed even noticed. When the Capitals came out of the last lockout, the one that cost the entire 2004-05 season, they couldn’t draw 14,000 fans a night, 28th in a 30-team league. As recently as 2007-08, they languished in 24th place in attendance. Play poorly, have no hope, and who knew?
That spring, though, they earned the first of four straight Southeast Division championships.
The building changed. Every seat was taken, almost always by someone wearing red. What followed was an era when the opposition might score the first two goals, and the Caps fan’s assured and realistic reaction was, “Yawn. You’re gonna have to score five to beat us.”
Heady times. Now, those same people are back, and they want the same experience they had in, say, 2009 or 2010. The Capitals host Pittsburgh this Super Bowl Sunday, a reprise of the marquee, league-showcase matchup that once seemed so natural. In 2010, in the hours before the Super Bowl, Sidney Crosby opened with two goals for Pittsburgh, Ovechkin countered with a hat trick to push the game to overtime, then assisted on Mike Knuble’s game-winner. Capitals 5, Penguins 4. Bedlam at Verizon. It was their — and this seems unfathomable at the moment — 14th straight victory.
“The team was going through some really good times,” Knuble, now with the Flyers, said before Friday’s game. He couldn’t stop smiling at the thought. During that stretch, the Caps averaged 4.9 goals per game. They scored at least four goals 12 times. They never failed to score three.
These Capitals? They seem so far from that team, that time. The criticism, back then, was that such a style wasn’t sustainable in the playoffs. And after a collapse against Montreal in the first round, that theory seemed to have merit.
But what to make of this group? It is playing its fourth style since then — the run-and-gun of Bruce Boudreau, the more defensively responsible version Boudreau switched to as 2010 turned to 2011, the lockdown Dale Hunter called for over the second half of 2011-12, and Oates’s pledge to be aggressive but responsible.
The results: Not even a single game with four goals. Only three in which they’ve scored three.
Yet they still dress in red sweaters at home, and the big scoreboard still shows Ovechkin leaping into the boards in celebration. On a February Friday, it’s supposed to be a frenzy, one that ends happily.
“For us, there were expectations,” said forward Troy Brouwer, who scored the go-ahead goal in the third. “There still are those same expectations.”
This is the environment to which Oates walks – a team, and a town, that have been told to expect to contend for championships. He is trying to remain, as he said, devoid of emotion that might lead to kneejerk decisions. But it can be difficult.
“Obviously, nervous at times, frustrated at times,” Oates said. “All the spectrum you go through. But I try to tell myself the same thing I would as a player. You got to be a pro about it.
“My job, I feel, is to show them that I’m ready and I support them and I’m confident that we’re fine.”
Oates’s definition of fine, though, is personal, and still developing. This town has seen its hockey team when it was fine — not to mention fun — and there’s a long way to go.