Thomas Boswell: Washington Capitals Are Rocking the Dread, Instead of the Red

For the first time under Coach Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals have lost three straight at home.
For the first time under Coach Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals have lost three straight at home. "We're holding our sticks really tight," he said. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, March 7, 2009

For a year, the Washington Capitals and their fans have relished their booming, blossoming franchise. But in any sport, the evolution of a rising contender is tumultuous. With praise comes complacency. Individual glory can erode team play. Above all, with excellence comes expectation. And with those new expectations come tension and nerves.

That's where the Capitals are now after a stunning third straight loss -- all at home, all to weaker teams.

All season, the Caps have relished their growing pleasures. Now they're facing their growing pains.

The Caps and their fans are not just shocked by the losses, but by the combined 13-5 score, too. In one loss, they gave up six straight goals; in the next game, five in a row and, on Thursday, they trailed 2-0 entering the final minute. The last time the Caps lost three straight in regulation time at home, they fired the coach -- last season.

"You can be told a little too often how good you are. I don't know if 'cavalier' is the word, but you can be too cocky at times, not play as hard as you should, be more pretty than gritty," General Manager George McPhee told me yesterday. Thursday night, he was so frustrated he went into his suite muttering, "I'm going back into my cave."

Far better to experience such issues now than in April, when you can be dumped out of the playoffs before you have figured out your problems, much less fixed them.

But that doesn't mean folks aren't getting hot. Sunday, the crowd at Verizon Center booed. On Tuesday, Coach Bruce Boudreau joined the chorus, lambasting his team for celebrating a meaningless goal.

"If I was on the Carolina bench, I would have been going, 'Look at these idiots,' " Boudreau said.

Losing to the Maple Leafs, albeit without Alex Ovechkin, might have been the most perplexing defeat, but also the most revealing. The Caps played with more intensity and fewer mistakes. But the accumulated frustration of a 3-5 skid -- during what could have been the fattest part of the schedule, with nine of 10 games at home -- showed itself in a new form: a bit of choking.

For good teams such as the Caps, gagging isn't the same as quitting or being selfish. Often, it's the opposite. Boudreau described it well after losing to a Toronto goalie who had just been picked up on waivers after a stint in the minors.

"It's not panic. They want to do so well they are afraid of making a mistake," the coach said. "We had enough chances to win two or three games. Guys are pressing pretty hard at this stage. We're holding our sticks really tight."

Then Boudreau added the most telling point. During the slump, the Caps have told him that "they were just so nervous. If they feel nervous now, how are they going to feel if we get to the third or fourth round of the playoffs? You can't get inside their heads."


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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