On Hockey: For Capitals, staying the course is no longer an option


Alex Ovechkin skates toward the bench after a first-period goal by Sabres rookie Luke Adam on Saturday night. (Gary Wiepert/AP)
November 27, 2011

In the aftermath of Saturday’s humbling 5-1 defeat in Buffalo against a team that seemingly had as many minor league call-ups as NHL regulars on the roster, sobering questions must be asked of the Washington Capitals.

Are players tuning out Coach Bruce Boudreau’s message?

What’s at the root of Alex Ovechkin’s ever-deepening slump?

Is there a chemistry issue in the dressing room?

General managers usually have a move in their back pocket just for times like these.

Before Tuesday’s game against St. Louis, George McPhee needs to use it. Because for all the questions facing his team, this much can no longer be denied: Staying the course isn’t an option.

Maintaining the status quo would only make the problems worse for a high-priced, star-laden team that is seven points out of first place in the Eastern Conference and five ahead of 14th.

As for the questions, no one has an easy answer.

Determining the precise moment a coach has “lost the room” is far from an exact science. Less than a week after becoming the fastest coach in NHL history to 200 wins, Boudreau’s body language on the bench at First Niagara Center, as well as his comments after the game, seemed to indicate that he’s frustrated and perhaps beginning to question his own methods.

“You like to think that they’re trying their hardest, but at the same time when we’re not winning a lot of the battles, you’ve gotta believe that there’s more to give,” Boudreau said after his team was held to one goal for the fourth time in seven games.

Asked how he can help the Capitals become mentally tough, he said: “It’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe. 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.”

Not exactly comforting words if you’re McPhee or owner Ted Leonsis.

On the ice, meanwhile, the Capitals again received subpar play in net — Tomas Vokoun’s .905 save percentage is significantly worse than his career average and Michal Neuvirth’s .868 is last among ranked goaltenders — and the skaters got outhustled and outsmarted by an undermanned Sabres squad they should have blown out.

It’s not so much that the Capitals are losing. It’s how they are losing. Including the 4-1 loss in Winnipeg on Nov. 17, they’ve been outworked in four of the past six games. Overall, they’ve lost eight of the past 11, yielding four goals per game during that wretched stretch. The team’s 3.27 goals against per game is 29th.

And this week figures to be particularly challenging. The Capitals host a Blues team that is 7-1-2 since Ken Hitchcock took over behind the bench and, on Thursday, Sidney Crosby and the rival Penguins.

After the loss in Buffalo, Boudreau did not single out anyone. But it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that Ovechkin is one of the players who has a lot more to give. Leonsis has often said it’s critical for a team’s highest-paid player to also be its best.

Right now, Ovechkin, with his $9 million salary, has fewer goals than checking-line winger Jason Chimera, and the only reason his minus-7 rating isn’t rock bottom is because defenseman Roman Hamrlik has been more of a liability with a minus-10.

Ovechkin has one goal and two assists in the past eight games and a total of eight goals in 22 games. His magical 65-goal campaign was in 2007-08, but it seems like decades ago.

The numbers are damning, of course. But so are the optics. On Luke Adam’s second goal Saturday, Ovechkin, standing between the circles, did not move as the Sabres rookie raced into the slot and made it 4-1. Ovechkin was there, but he wasn’t really there.

Diagnosing a locker room divide also can be difficult. But if the coach and the captain aren’t on the same page, as it appears, how can anyone reasonably expect the other 22 players to be? There will always be factions loyal to one side, and by definition, working against the other.

The only cure for that — other than a coaching change — would be stirring the dressing room’s chemistry with a significant trade of the magnitude of dealing a player such as Alexander Semin. But in a salary cap world, discussing potential swaps is easy. Completing them is hard.

There are 60 games left for the Capitals to figure this mess out and, at some point, No. 1 defenseman Mike Green will return from his latest injury.

But something’s got to change. And it must go deeper than rearranging the forward combinations and defensive pairs.

Your move, McPhee.

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