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Capitals hockey: A lack of mental fortitude plaguing Washington more than X’s and O’s

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A day after the Washington Capitals’ most humiliating loss of the season, General Manager George McPhee blamed undisciplined play and poor goaltending for the fourth-worst start in franchise history through 11 games.

“I think the only — the two areas we must get better is keeping pucks out of our net and it starts by not taking penalties and protecting the goalies more,” McPhee said Friday. “They’ve had their time in Hershey. There is upside there with these goaltenders. But they can both play better and they know it. And it’s time for them to play.”

Frequent penalties are certainly one of the problems; Washington leads the league in power-play goals allowed (15) and has been whistled for the seventh-most minors (55) in the NHL entering Saturday’s game against the Florida Panthers. The team’s two young netminders, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, have a 4.74 and 3.05 goals against average, respectively.

But players say there’s also another reason things keep on getting worse, and it’s a problem that has spread through the dressing room: a lack of mental fortitude.

After nearly every defeat this season, the Capitals have cited a lull in focus or drive that proved to be their undoing. The most recent example came after the 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh Thursday, when Alex Ovechkin said that the Capitals “didn’t play” and had “no emotions, nothing” against a foe that’s supposed to be their most heated rival.

It’s a familiar pattern. A few bad shifts in succession, a mistake or two — including unnecessary penalties — and suddenly the puck is in the back of the net. All it takes is a single goal or lackluster play to send the Capitals reeling, extending the lapse because with nearly a quarter of the season gone, they have yet to find a way to regroup from such everyday obstacles.

“When we get scored on, we get down on ourselves. That feeling of ‘here we go again’ is starting to sink in, and we can’t allow that,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “Obviously when we’re getting put on the penalty kill and they’re scoring, it makes sense that it would lead to that. But I think it’s our mental game right now. We need to be stronger, realize we’re a good hockey team in here and that we can come out and win hockey games even if we’re behind by a goal or two.”

The Capitals need to find ways to brush off a deficit or momentary lapse, Coach Adam Oates said, rather than allow it to become a crushing error that alters the course of the game.

“We can’t start leaking oil because they got a goal against us. That’s part of being a pro; you have to fight through that and you have to learn from that,” Oates said. “And as a group you’ve got to get stronger from it.”

McPhee expressed unequivocal support for Oates and the system he’s trying to implement and dismissed the suggestion that players haven’t been mentally prepared heading into games. But the general manager did admit that the Capitals’ mettle leaves something to be desired.

“If they say they’re fragile, yeah they are,” McPhee said. “And it always seems to start with the penalties. We’ve played so well in so many games and we take some penalties at inopportune times, and clusters of them, that you’re just putting yourself in jail. That part of it I would agree with, that they have to stay out of the box and stay stronger and give themselves a chance.”

Against the Penguins, it was when Neuvirth allowed a soft goal to Pascal Dupuis, putting Washington down 2-1, that seemed to signal the start of a collapse.

Oates changed goaltenders in an effort to spark the team, but the Capitals were a step behind their opponents the rest of the way. They took a pair of penalties less than three minutes apart that led to two more Pittsburgh power-play goals and continued their inability to pull themselves out of the funk.

Only Ovechkin appeared to play with the desperation required for a team in last place in the NHL to try to move past a bad stretch and back into a game.

On a Friday appearance on WMAL, owner Ted Leonsis described the Pittsburgh defeat as “obviously not acceptable for anyone,” a sentiment echoed by the players.

“We have to get on the ice and feel like we have to win,” center Mathieu Perreault said. “It seems like lately we lose, [but] ‘well, we’ve done good things.’ When we lose . . . play good or not, it’s not acceptable. I think that’s the mentality we should get. We’ve got to win every single game, no matter what.”

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