Washington (12-9-1) is 3-7-1 in its past 11 games and with each defeat come questions about changes on the roster or behind the bench as the team continues its downward spiral. The loss to the Sabres illustrated the Capitals’ recent tendency to crumble when faced with any sort of misfortune.
“Sometimes we’re not mentally strong,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “This group has got to learn how to be mentally strong. It hasn’t had a lot of adversity in the last four years unless it was in the playoffs. The regular season, it seems like it was a walk in the park. We’ve reached, for 15 games now, some adversity and some guys are having a tough time with it.”
The Capitals might have earned a reprieve from any alterations when they started the week with back-to-back wins against Phoenix and Winnipeg. But after two more listless defeats — on back-to-back nights — it’s clear their problems are not ebbing. General Manager George McPhee did not make the trip to Buffalo with the team, instead traveling to Hershey, Pa., to watch the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate. Boudreau, whose job security has been doubted with each stage of Washington’s struggles, was asked how a team finds its mettle.
“It’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe,” the 56-year-old Boudreau said. “I’m hoping that’s got to come from within because if I’ve got to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.”
Signs of unraveling began in the final 10 minutes of the first period. Buffalo (13-9-1) took a 1-0 lead 10 minutes 47 seconds into the game when a clearing attempt by Dennis Wideman ricocheted off the stick of Sabres center Paul Szczechura and hopped out in front. Luke Adam, who was in the slot unguarded, fired a one-timer past Tomas Vokoun (23 saves).
Less than five minutes later, Jason Pominville put the Sabres ahead 2-0 after Vokoun got a piece of a shot and knocked the puck into the air. It fell on the left side of the crease where the Buffalo captain swatted into the cage.
This defeat, though, can’t be placed solely with Vokoun. Even at that early stage, the Capitals looked deflated and began letting the group of energized Sabres — with five recent members of their AHL affiliate Rochester Americans in the mix — skate circles around them.
“There’s definitely a lack of confidence,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You can see it in guys that are usually so confident with the puck and stuff that they do, and that’s hard to get back. It’s up to us as a team and coaches and everybody. We’ve got to give everyone as much confidence as possible. Especially through a stretch like this, everyone comes to the rink and they’re down. We get a goal scored against us and we’re down.”