Having been here for most of eight years, Brooks Laich remembers the Capitals being so bad that players used to look up at the empty stands from their home ice and joke, “It must be Dress Up Like a Seat Night.”
When Alex Ovechkin set the NHL afire about five years ago and was eventually paired with great, young talent and experienced grinders, the rush of becoming a Stanley Cup contender was so much more exhilarating for Laich than, say, for a veteran on a middling team — because he knew how much work and time it took to go from lousy to the most electrifying team in hockey.
Now? He just doesn’t want to leave with the same lament his former coach had.
“I’m so scared of leaving D.C. without having accomplished what I want to accomplish,” he said of raising a Stanley Cup, which seems further away now than at any time since 2008. “I think a guy like Bruce [Boudreau], leaving after he’s let go, is just upset that he ultimately didn’t deliver — because there’s so many people around here that deserve this.”
In case you missed this gradual siphoning of hope from a season — and perhaps an era — the Capitals are on the brink. With 26 games left and on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture in ninth place, they are frightened a 7-0 start is going to morph into a no-postseason, detonate-the-franchise finish.
Laich is calling the team’s road trip that begins Friday night against Florida their last chance to turn the inconsistency around, a road trip “that’s probably going to make or break our season,” he said.
Everyone is on edge.
The backup goalie and one of the team’s most respected players are questioning Coach Dale Hunter’s decision to not play them. Assistant goalie coach Olie Kolzig, who led the Caps to their last Stanley Cup finals, said Ovechkin needs to stop getting “wrapped up too much in the rock-star status,” a nice way of saying he should check himself before he wrecks himself. Pressure rising, Ovechkin and Dennis Wideman got into a practice altercation Thursday.
You can feel it everywhere. Comparing the hydroplaning scoring machine Ovechkin and the Caps became just four years ago to this malaise-infected club — one that has yet to find its identity amid the loss of Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom to injury — a team official, on condition of anonymity, said, “It feels like the air has slowly been let out of the balloon.”
Is it time to let go of this wild, five-year emotional thrill ride? Not this minute. But it’s getting extremely late in the game. Laich knows it.
“I watch standings all the time,” he said. “In my experience it takes about 94 points to get into the playoffs. And if we have  games left, and we’re sitting at 61 points, that means you have to win 17 games probably.”
That’s a tough task for a team that has won three times in its last 11 games and never really recaptured the passion or that potent offense that characterized so many late-season runs since 2008, when it had to run the table and win eight straight games to get into the postseason.
Florida is the most needed regular season game for the Caps in almost four years, just as this road trip is as pivotal as any since 2008. This is the time for desperation. This is the time for Ovechkin to find a gear missing on a consistent basis since, let’s be brutally honest, Russia folded in the Winter Games two years ago. Ever since then, hockey has seemed more of a chore than a joy to him.
This is the time for Hunter, at times almost passive over his team’s poor play, to act like he wants to coach the Capitals beyond this season.
However the arrangement went down — owner Ted Leonsis telling General Manager George McPhee that he and his new coach were on a prove-it-or-lose-it contract or Hunter taking a wait-and-see approach before returning to his uber-profitable minor league fiefdom in London, Ontario — the message sent to the locker room is clear:
Either ownership is not all-in on the coach, the coach isn’t all-in with the Caps or, worse, they’re both feeling each other out to see if it’s the right fit. That’s not genuine commitment, the kind a coach and an organization demands from its players; that’s hedging your bets in case the whole season blows up in your face. That’s a cavalier attitude, and it permeates every facet of a franchise.
Winning can always be the great deodorant — covering up all the stench of a deflating season.
But as Laich said: “We have to understand that the time is now, we can’t wait. I don’t think there’s a lot of magic coming at the trade deadline. The guys that are going to get us into the playoffs are in the locker room right now. We have to win. We have to win right now.”
The reclamation project begins Friday night, everyone knows. If it doesn’t happen then, there is a feeling it never will with this group, this coach and perhaps this general manager, who is now on his fifth coach.
“We can’t be waiting two weeks or three weeks, and try and make a push, the push that we made four or five years ago whatever to get in,” Laich said. “Win 11 of your last 12? That doesn’t happen very often and we don’t want to have to just snake in like that. We have to win right now.”
For previous Mike Wise columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.