Struggling Capitals’ troubles spread off the ice


Joel Ward and the Capitals have stumbled of late, with just three wins in their last 11 games. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
February 14, 2012

The Washington Capitals have plenty to worry about with 26 games remaining in the regular season, given that they have just three wins in their past 11 games and are lodged in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. But days ahead of a crucial four-game trip, the team’s troubles are spreading off the ice as two players publicly voiced frustration with decisions by the coaching staff.

Following an optional practice Tuesday, goaltender Michal Neuvirth expressed his displeasure at the lack of communication when the team decided he would sit on the bench against San Jose. Meanwhile, veteran alternate captain Mike Knuble, who has been a healthy scratch for three straight games, said he would consider a trade if it becomes apparent he is no longer in the Capitals’ plans.

“A coach has never taken out a good player that’s playing well,” Coach Dale Hunter said when asked about making roster decisions. “When one comes out, another one’s going in, eager to prove to me that [he] should have been in before.”

Someone who didn’t expect to be out on Monday against the Sharks at Verizon Center was Neuvirth. The 23-year-old Czech started the day before against the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers because veteran Tomas Vokoun was fighting the flu. When Vokoun was too ill to take part in the morning skate ahead of the game with San Jose, Neuvirth assumed he would be making a second straight start.

After preparing throughout the day as though he would play, Neuvirth arrived to the news that Braden Holtby would be making his first NHL appearance of the season instead.

“It is tough, but what can I do? At least if I knew Holtsy was going to get the start — but, you know, no one told me so I was getting prepared for the game,” Neuvirth said. “When I showed up, I found out I’m not playing. It’s tough to swallow.”

Following the 5-3 loss to San Jose, Hunter explained that his decision was based on Neuvirth’s lack of experience in back-to-back games. The alternative: Holtby was called up on an emergency basis at 9:30 a.m. Monday and made the 21 / 2 hour drive to Washington after playing in the AHL the night before.

“It’s one of those things that if [Neuvirth] was standing on his head every night, would Braden be playing? No,” Hunter said. “It’s always judged by how you play.”

Neuvirth has only appeared in five of 22 games — four starts — since he was pulled in the first period of a 4-2 loss to Buffalo on Dec. 26. In those four starts, which stretched over 11 games beginning on Jan. 18 in Montreal, Neuvirth went 1-2-1, including a shutout, stopping 113 of the 123 shots he faced for a .918 save percentage and 2.50 goals against average.

“I was hoping to get the start and it didn’t happen,” Neuvirth said. “So, just gonna [be] working hard in practices and wait for another chance.”

While Neuvirth voiced his unhappiness in one corner of the dressing room at the team’s practice facility in Arlington, Knuble, the respected veteran winger, made it clear that while he hasn’t requested a trade, if he continues to sit as a healthy scratch he may consider his options to play elsewhere.

The Capitals went 0-2-1 in the past three games when Knuble, 39, was replaced in the lineup by minor league call-ups Keith Aucoin and Joel Rechlicz. The two, along with Holtby, were reassigned to Hershey on Tuesday.

“You can handle it a number of ways: You can be content and just sit there and let things happen as they may, or you can force an issue. You have to kind of decide that,” Knuble said. “It’s two weeks before the trade deadline, and you know, if a player is not going to be used now or in the near future, if they don’t have plans, then, you know, that player probably wouldn’t want to be there.”

At this stage of his career, Knuble has slowed down in terms of overall speed and production. In 53 games, he’s recorded three goals, eight assists and a team-worst minus-14 rating. But he has still been mentioned among trade possibilities for teams looking to add veteran leadership and a special-teams presence before the postseason.

Hunter said Knuble’s statistics play a large role in the benching and that he’d like to see the right wing prove his worth. The coach also said Knuble would get back in the lineup “eventually.”

“We all go through it when we get older. I went through it,” Hunter said. “You’re trying to get more speed in the lineup but you’ve got to be professional about it and train hard out here so when you do get back in you’re ready to go. Show me that I made a mistake. That’s what I want.”

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